Lanford Wilson

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 13 June 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on Theater.” New Republic 162, no. 2894 (13 June 1970): 18, 31.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann provides a somewhat unfavorable assessment of Lemon Sky, contending that it “accomplishes little.”]

Three new off-Broadway productions [Colette, by Ellen Stewart; Lemon Sky, by Lanford Wilson; and The Me Nobody Knows, by Orpheum] underline a familiar truth: American performing is better than American writing. …

Christopher Walken [in Lemon Sky,] is a talented young actor at the other end of the spectrum from Miss Caldwell [cast as the title character in Colette] He doesn't have her technical virtuosity, and he has ambitions only towards realistic acting, even in the Shakespeare of his that I've seen. But, besides stage ease and easy charm, he has an unusual conviction of quintessence. In Lemon Sky he plays a late teenager (as well as the boy's older self), and we know at once that the core of that boy has come on stage in Walken.

Walken has an extrinsic nuisance in his life, a physical resemblance to Jon Voight, of Midnight Cowboy, another gifted actor. One distinction between them, however, is that Walken has a greater feminine quality (not to be confused with effeminacy), which I find attractive in men. And he has the strength for encompassment. There are moments in this play when everything whirls about him and, after a moment's circumspection, he seems to gather up everything that's whirling and advance with it. I hope his voice keeps developing and that every time his vowels flatten out, he means them to. With his growth, his career can grow.

Charles Durning, an actor who has only seemed passable to me previously, is here perfectly cast as Walken's father—a beer-drinking vulgar supermale—and finds a range of humanity in the part. Bonnie Bartlett, as Walken's stepmother, supplies plain-faced, California-bungalow, suffering submission and also some credible touches of the universality that sometimes glints in the tract house. Warren Enters has directed adequately, with no suspicion of originality.

Lemon Sky, by the young playwright Lanford Wilson, is about a youth from the Midwest who leaves his divorced mother to live with his father and second wife in California, and why it doesn't work out. The dialogue is fluent vernacular, brightened by occasional inversions of cliché. (“I won't tell you my dreams if you won't tell me yours.”) There are occasional perceptions—not of character but of the natural world—that verge on the poetic. But the play disappoints. It begins with an air of great portent and uses a lot of arty structural apparatus but accomplishes little. All that happens finally is that the father accuses the son—falsely, it seems—of homosexuality, and the boy leaves. A very great deal of back-and-forth time-flow, choric comment, and comment on the play itself is expended on slight dramatic material and shallow characters. And Wilson uses, yet again, the device of telling us that a character we see is going to die soon, thus trying to win for her a degree of pathos that she hasn't earned.

Wilson's play, The Gingham Dog, presented on Broadway last year, failed through its desperate symmetries and hollow encyclopedism, but it had a trenchant portrait of a young black wife in a black-white marriage. A lot of Wilson's work seems to be based on his (white) boyhood and youth and tends to be Thornton Wilder réchauffé, if somewhat leaner. But it is that black girl whom I remember and who makes me care about Wilson's future.


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Lanford Wilson 1937-

American playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of Wilson's career through 2003. For further information...

(This entire section contains 1072 words.)

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on his life and works, seeCLC, Volumes 7, 14, and 36.

A prolific writer of experimental and traditional drama, Wilson launched his career at the avant-garde Caffe Cino during the off-off-Broadway movement of the 1960s. He later co-founded the renowned Circle Repertory Company, for which he wrote many of his major works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly (1979). Through his dynamic characters, many of whom are misfits of low social class, Wilson has explored issues of alienation, solitude, and disillusionment. His plays address themes of family conflict, gender roles and expectations, sexual identity, and the changing social landscape of America. He has been widely regarded for the authenticity and poetic rhythm of his dialogue. Wilson's style, frequently compared to those of Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, is categorized as lyrical realism but frequently employs such nonrealistic devices as monologue, symbolic characters, and direct address of the audience. Wilson has enjoyed success both on and off Broadway and his works are among the most regularly produced plays in regional, college, and community theaters. Wilson remains an important voice in American playwriting, as evidenced by numerous revival productions of his plays, including Balm in Gilead,Burn This, and 5th of July, which were first produced in 1965, 1987, and 1978, respectively.

Biographical Information

Wilson was born on April 13, 1937, in the town of Lebanon, Missouri, a setting the author often revisited in his works. When he was five years old, Wilson's parents divorced and his father moved to California. After transferring from Southwest Missouri State University to San Diego State University in 1955, Wilson was briefly reunited with his father, an event which provided inspiration for the highly autobiographical play Lemon Sky (1968). Wilson relocated to Chicago in 1956, where he began writing one-act dramas; in 1962, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in playwriting. In 1963, Caffe Cino produced Wilson's one-act So Long at the Fair, propelling Wilson into a period of intense creativity. He wrote at a frenetic pace throughout the 1960s, with most of his work premiering at Caffe Cino and other off-off-Broadway venues. Wilson's most important early plays were the full-length pieces Balm in Gilead and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966). After the suicide of Caffe Cino's producer, Joe Cino, Wilson began to utilize regional theater as a means to produce his work. In 1969, Wilson co-founded the Circle Repertory Company in Greenwich Village. He was the group's playwright-in-residence until it disbanded in 1996. With the Circle Repertory Company, Wilson produced many of his most critically and commercially successful plays: Serenading Louie (1970), The Hot l Baltimore (1973), and The Mound Builders (1975). Wilson introduced his Talley cycle—three plays about a Midwestern family set in Wilson's birthplace—with 1978's 5th of July, followed by Talley's Folley in 1979, and A Tale Told, later revised as Talley & Son, in 1981. In 1987, Wilson penned three plays in rapid succession, including the acclaimed Burn This. Wilson has continued to produce plays throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century.

Major Works

Balm in Gilead, Wilson's first full-length play, is a documentary-like piece depicting the lives of drug addicts, dealers, pimps, prostitutes, drag queens, and hustlers—the denizens of an all-night diner in New York City. In 1966, Wilson premiered his second full-length work, The Rimers of Eldritch, which opened at Cafe La Mama and moved off-Broadway later that year. The Rimers of Eldritch champions outcast characters and is set in a narrow-minded Midwestern town. Lemon Sky is perhaps Wilson's most personal play, a memory piece set in San Diego about a teenage boy's attempt to reconcile with his estranged father. A major critical and commercial success, The Hot l Baltimore is a lament for the past and an affirmation of humanity's ability to endure, as destitute inhabitants of a once-grandiose hotel await its demolition. In The Mound Builders, Wilson focuses on an idealistic past and the detrimental effects of modern progress. The Mound Builders centers on a team of archaeologists attempting to protect their discovery of an ancient Native American civilization from land development. 5th of July introduces the characters Ken Talley, Jr., who is a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, his homosexual lover, and his Aunt Sally. When faced with the decision of whether to sell the family home, Ken elects not to sell, affirming values of family and tradition. A younger Aunt Sally appears in Wilson's Talley's Folly, the story of Sally Talley's forbidden courtship and elopement with Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant. A Tale Told, the third and final installment in the Talley cycle, is set on July 4, 1944, the same night as Talley's Folly, and presents additional members of the Talley clan who decide to sell the family garment business to a conglomerate. In Burn This, Wilson touches on the theme of intimacy in the face of grief, exploring human sexuality and love through the characters of Anna, who is a dancer, and Pale, the incendiary brother of Anna's recently deceased roommate. Returning to earlier themes and subject matter, Wilson examined small-town hypocrisy and the search for community in Book of Days (1998). In Rain Dance (2000), set in 1945 in New Mexico, the birth of the atomic age brings together an American scientist, a Native American, and two German immigrants, each of whom has contributed in some way to the development of the atom bomb.

Critical Reception

Wilson has been acclaimed by critics, actors, and audiences alike. Scholars have praised his inventive use of dialogue, and from his earliest works, reviewers have consistently noted Wilson's skill with language. Reflecting on Balm in Gilead, critic Anne M. Dean stated: “For all the play's visual brilliance, for me its greatest strength resides in its manipulation of language.” Wilson has been lauded for his ability to transform everyday vernacular into poetry. Commentators have observed his adept characterizations, particularly marking his compassionate depiction of society's outcasts. Wilson's talent for developing dynamic, intriguing characters has earned him a reputation as an “actor's playwright.” Audiences have admired Wilson's accessible, realistic style and tender characters, making him one of the most commercially successful playwrights of his time. Wilson has been honored with numerous awards for his craft, including the Vernon Rice Award, the Obie, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. However, critical praise of Wilson's work is not unanimous; some reviewers have bemoaned his writing as sentimental, overly conventional, and pretentious. Despite these charges, critics have widely considered Wilson an important contributor to American theater.

Lanford Wilson and Esther Harriott (interview date December 1982)

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SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and Esther Harriott. “Interview with Lanford Wilson.” In American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, pp. 36-58. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1988.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in December 1982, Wilson discusses his penchant for developing complex characters.]

I met with Lanford Wilson in December 1982 at the offices of the Circle Repertory Theater in New York. Wilson was a co-founder of the theater in 1969 and has been a resident playwright there ever since. Every room was in bustling use, and Wilson suggested that we walk to a café in the neighborhood.

Thin and handsome and dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and a black leather jacket, Wilson looked much younger than his 46 years. He was tired, and at the beginning of the interview when I asked questions about his affiliation with Circle Rep—questions that he has apparently been asked many times—he was politely impatient. But when we began to talk about his plays, he warmed to the conversation. He is seldom asked to discuss his work seriously, he said afterwards. Wilson is a shy but animated talker who, appropriately for a playwright, often frames his answers in anecdotes composed of dialogue. Sipping wine at our minuscule table, he talked volubly and with charm until my three hours' worth of tapes ran out.

[Harriott]: Are you in an enviable position as a playwright because you're in a repertory company?

[Wilson]: It's not enviable unless you want to work that way. I've created an atmosphere in which I can work, and other playwrights would envy that only if they can work in that kind of atmosphere. We have a bunch of them—I'm not the only one. We have twelve resident writers and a workshop of probably 24 or 25 writers and the actors are available to any of them, to read scenes so that the playwright can hear his work spoken by the person he's writing for. That's just what I needed—working in a group and not being completely isolated, and having the feeling that the play is going to get on, rather than writing in a vacuum for some producer's secretary to read or not read, and ship them out in the mail. I've never mailed a script to anyone and I'm awfully happy about that—at least not since 1968. I suppose my agent does though, so that doesn't really count.

You started with Caffe Cino and then moved to Circle Rep?

Yeah. I did a one-act play for Circle called The Family Continues and then The Hot l Baltimore. That was the first full-length one.

The Family Continues is like a piece of music, isn't it?

I was writing like that for a while. It was an experiment to get back to work and I wasn't even thinking that I was writing. Well, it was a story more interesting than that. When we started Circle Rep I gave them Lemon Sky to do and they couldn't do it because they didn't have a “father.” And Marshall [Mason] at that time was only casting within the company. At the time I was writing Serenading Louie, and Lemon Sky was finished. Lemon Sky got on in Buffalo and Serenading Louie almost simultaneously—just before the Buffalo show—opened down in Washington, D.C. Then The Gingham Dog was done on Broadway and Lemon Sky moved to Broadway, and I was having a lot of activity outside Circle. Of course they bombed, or to various extents none of them ran. Lemon Sky was fairly well received but it didn't run any longer than Gingham Dog, which was fairly badly received.

I wanted to ask you about that, because I think Gingham Dog is a fine play. It's so true.

It wasn't a very good production, actually. The actors could do it, but for some reason Alan Schneider's production was just not very good. He had them arguing from the very top. They were screaming at each other from the very first line, and all the humor and nuance and life got washed right away. The second act was done more or less correctly, but it was too late. So what happened then was logical, since I'd been fairly well received but not run. But that didn't matter because I thought commercial theater was absolutely abominable at the time and so I would have been embarrassed if I'd had a hit. But I thought I had to write the Great American Play next. And it is impossible to set out to write the Great American Play. I mean, you write “The Great American Play” across the top of the page and you'll never write another word. And so I went into this enormous decline and didn't write anything for about a year and a half.

That's a short period of time, as playwrights generally write in America.

Not for me, because I've been very, very prolific, as you know. I mean, I don't feel I'm prolific, but other people say I'm prolific, and I do keep turning work out where other people keep not turning work out. So what I did just in order to remain sane is I started going to the office at Circle Rep where all my friends were. They were all in the midst of overwhelming activity, doing all these plays and all these shows.

Actor friends?

Mostly actors at the Circle Rep. We didn't have nearly as many playwrights then. And since I was a member of that group, I hung around there and answered the phone and helped clean up and helped build sets and wasn't writing at all, because I couldn't write, but I was reading scripts. And Marshall decided he wanted to do two one-act plays of mine—The Great Nebula in Orion and Ikke Ikke Nye Nye Nye. And I said, “But you've got this company of actors, and you'll use two in the one play and two in the other. And that's only four. They're both short, so why don't I do another little thing that will use more people?” And so that play was written as just an exercise for eight to ten people. I just was doing something for the Circle Rep actors to do. I took what is basically my play Wandering and wrote it in a different way. It became very musical, and also I wanted to use some of the exercises that Marshall was doing—exercises in trust. And I finished the damn play before I knew I had written something. It was the first thing I had written in about a year and a half.

That sort of answers the question that I didn't really ask but had at the back of my mind, which was, does the fact that you've been in a repertory theater have something to do with the fact that you've continued to write?

I think so, because they keep needing work. And naturally if they're doing six plays a year I want one of them to be mine. I've skipped a few years. It sometimes takes longer to write. I always tell Marshall to have an alternate selection in mind and not to tell me, so that he can have it ready in case I don't get my play finished on time. And with The Mound Builders I didn't.

That's a wonderful play.

I like that play, too. It's one of the only times I've written what I intended to do. You have an idea, and when the play is all finished, you say, “That isn't what I intended to write at all.” But when I finished The Mound Builders I said, “That is exactly what I intended to do.” It's lovely for that to happen. I didn't know the specifics but I knew that there would be something outside that's going to get you. And when I was about three or four months into the play, I said, “I think this is about work.” Why people work and what is the impulse to work and why do we strive to do good work.

It's a play, like a lot of your plays, about waiting for the end—that “something outside that's going to get you”—and what do you do in the meantime.

Yes, what do you do in the meantime and that was answered—you work. That was what I had intended to write, and that was so thrilling to me.

I'm surprised to hear you say that, because I always get the feeling that you're in complete control of your material.

Not always. Things slip away and characters get out of hand and you have to slap them around a little more than you intended to. They take off in their own direction and it surprises me and leads me into slightly different areas from where I had intended to go. And I say, well what do you know? This turned out to be that. Like, Hot l Baltimore is so much sweeter than I thought it was. I thought I was writing the first filthy play. I was teaching Ron Tavel how to write a dirty play. And I got the first two acts finished and people were reading it to me—because I was going around saying, “What in the hell happens in the third act? I don't know how to end this play.” I thought I had written this uncommercial, unproducible, filthy play. And they finished reading the first two acts and I said, “My God, that's charming.” I called my agent and I said, “You know that filthy play I'm writing? It's charming.” She said, “Charming? With all those whores and all those dykes and all that?” And I said, “I know. It's charming.” I couldn't believe it. I was so disappointed in a way.

Did you think Balm in Gilead was going to be a filthy play?

No, I didn't even know Balm in Gilead was a play. I was sitting in a café writing down things that people said.

Oh, you do do that? I asked myself that question, because your dialogue sounds so real.

It was dictation. But not all of it. It's orchestrated and I was doing all sorts of sound patterns. I was just playing. I was doodling with sound.

And with time.

Yeah. And then I started playing with the idea of monologues that I got directly from James Saunders' play Next Time I'll Sing to You. There are four shaggy dog stories that are told to the audience—he has just one, but I swear it must be 15 minutes long. When I got it all finished and put in those shaggy dog stories, I said, “You know, this is looking very much like a full-length play.” I hadn't written a full-length play. I divided it and wrote the long monologue at the top of the second act.

In The Hot l Baltimore and Balm in Gilead and in all of your plays you show a lot of compassion for the outsider. And in The Gingham Dog you pay the most attention to the feelings of a black character, which is rare for a white playwright.

Well, of course, there's Athol Fugard.

Yes, but he's living in South Africa where that issue is the central fact of his life.

That came about because at that time [1969] everybody was writing these wild, hate-filled, screaming plays. It didn't jibe with what I was seeing and I wanted to do something very different. Matt Friedman [the hero of Talley's Folly] came about the same kind of way. I got so sick of the stage Jew. The way those Jewish writers write themselves and their mothers and their fathers—I just hated it. And even the novelists.

Like Philip Roth?

Philip Roth and others. And I said, O.K. That's fine, that's one aspect of it, and we've suddenly discovered our Jewish hate. But that my Jewish friends aren't like that at all. I wanted to see if I could write a Jewish stage character that doesn't have all of those clichés. One of the strong attempts in that play was to write a Jewish character as he might really be—a Jewish hero, rather than all those Jewish villains that were being written and all those ghastly women.

That suggests a couple of questions that I want to ask you. In Brontosaurus you have the nephew say, “I felt myself thinning out.” He talks about feeling himself a part of all kinds of people. And it seems to me that you're like that. That is, you seem to sense how a lot of different kinds of people from different classes and different regions feel. I don't know how you do that—whether it's just instinctive.

I had that experience exactly as he describes it, which is what Allen Ginsberg would call having a satori experience, I think. I had that when I was 11. It's an indescribable experience, so I said O.K. let's try to describe it. I could have become a minister from having had that experience. I did not. It was interesting to try to recall it and write it as clearly as I could. And Zappy's monologue in Angels Fall, the one about tennis. When I was working in Fuller, Smith & Ross, I was an apprentice in the art department there and I thought I was going to become a graphic designer. But I was writing a lot of stories. And working in an advertising agency wasn't as interesting as I thought it was going to be.

This was before everything—before you wrote plays?

This was before everything, yeah. I was 20. I was writing stories—I started writing stories when I was very small and kept writing stories. But I was really an artist. I was just writing stories on the side, and because friends of mine at San Diego State were writers, and I wanted to be in a class with them, so I took a writing class. I kept writing stories on my own after I left San Diego. It was very good relaxation from this stupid job I had—the closer you get to advertising the more you realize you don't really want to be a part of it all.

Morally, you mean?

And also you don't want to go through the hassle. I thought it would be great fun designing a logo. And you design about 20 of them, but the account executive won't show 15 of them to the client, who hates them all anyway. It's all just such compromise that it's not design, it's something else. That was very disheartening. Anyway, I thought of a story and I realized it wasn't really like a story. It was like a play, like The Glass Menagerie. The narrative in all of my stories had been awkward and the dialogue had been good. The dialogue in the stories was almost better than it was supposed to be. It was more speakable than dialogue that you see in stories. So I started writing just dialogue and trying to get my ideas straight. And by the middle of the second page—they were big pages—I said, I'm a playwright. Forget all the art I'd been studying for 20 years. I'm a playwright. I write plays. It was like a thunderbolt. That experience is translated into Zappy's “Since I hit that first ball, I said this is me. This is what I am.”

And once you decide who you are, “the rest is just work.”

“The rest is just work.” I knew I had a specific talent for writing plays. And I knew then I was better at it than 99 percent of the people who were working at it already. That was what I was given. And as Zappy says, once you've been shown that, you can't just say you weren't shown that. So the rest is just work. You were asking about the characters, and this was all to answer that most of those things, I've experienced. They've happened to me or I've seen them and empathized with someone else having that experience.

I said that your remark about wanting to write about Matt Friedman not as a stage Jew, but as a sort of redeeming act, suggested two questions. The other one is about The Gingham Dog. You make a point of having your male protagonist say that he's disillusioned, that when he grew up in a small town in the South he wanted to be large-spirited about Jews and about blacks. But when he came to New York he found that these stereotypes were, in fact, vindicated, and it's upsetting to him.

That is one whole side and the other whole side is completely different. He does say that, yeah. And you do see it. You do see Jews and blacks behaving in a terribly unattractive, stereotyped way from time to time. And you say, oh please don't do that, oh God, that's terrible, that's awful! Lord, you're behaving in exactly the way … you see it with Ozark hillbillies too. And ten minutes later, if you stayed with them, they'd be behaving in a way that completely denied that. Or else there are some that the stereotype is based on and there's nothing you can do about that.

Do you know the critic Leslie Fiedler?


He says that in every stereotype there resides an archetype.

Yeah. Oh, there are some who are exactly … you know, there are some lazy, slovenly blacks who think of nothing except sex, and your stereo's not safe with them. But then there's Gloria Foster. Or any number of other people.

Why wasn't A Tale Told published?

It was done here and then I rewrote it a great deal. It was not completely successful. By that I mean it wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be—or what any of us wanted it to be, what Marshall wanted it to be. It was a gorgeous production but it just wasn't the play yet. And so I rewrote it and we did it at Mark Taper Forum in California, where we do a lot of them. And it was vastly improved. It was so much improved that in some of the audience discussions that we had, I began to realize what the play had to be, and said, “Oh my God, have I got a lot of work to do on this yet! But not now.” Because I had to write Angels Fall—that was a commission. So I postponed the Broadway production because it was just not what it should be yet, and I didn't have any time to do it then. Also, I was exhausted on the damn thing—you burn out on them after a while. So that's the next project, to go back to A Tale Told and rewrite that play the way it should have been.

You said that you began writing stories and then found that the dialogue was coming off the page. The sad thing is that very few people in this country start off by writing plays. Most people who want to be writers think of fiction and poetry. There are so many more obstacles for a playwright.

You have to be bit. You have to be stage-struck. You have to like theater in some way to begin with. I saw a college production of Death of a Salesman and in the middle of the monologue when he remembered the past before all those buildings had been built, and they all faded into green trees—the backdrop changed from solid brick buildings to these bright, shining green trees—and I was hooked from then on. The next thing I saw was Brigadoon. Oh, my God, when that village appeared? I was gone.

You're talking about technological things.

That was magic! It was what hooked me. It's not what I'm trying to do. Magic, yes. But in who knows what different kind of way. Magic with words and time and juxtapositions and light.

How did you know in, say, Balm in Gilead, that by dimming the light on the characters very briefly, that it would be so effective?

Yeah, I think it is. We got it down to a flash of—bang!—about that long. The reason I did it was because in this cacophony I wanted to point out the person that you're going to have to watch.

It does something else too. It changes the perception of time.

It does all kinds of other things that I hadn't even intended at the time. It was just a good experiment. There are others in that play that don't work as well. But there are some very nice experiments in it, too. I haven't read that play in years, but the last time I did, I said, “Why don't I still write like that? My God, that's very inventive.”

When they repeat the stabbing of Joe three times, that's very chilling.

That is very chilling, really scary. We'd be going on with all this noise for the entire length of the play. It builds, and then he's stabbed as those kids go flying out. I was thinking of the play as music all the way through, and I wanted to have a musical climax. And also, even though this was a climax, it looked insignificant because there's been so much brutality and so much carrying on, that it almost isn't any more important, and did it three times for those reasons. And just repeating that almost for the physical impact. And boy, is that scary! Boy, does it work! Also the way Marshall did it was astonishing, because Joe falls back over the table and slumps down the first time, as the kids are going out, and someone pulls him up. And they stab him again and he falls back exactly the same way, and the kids are going out again. And people pull him up again. And the third time he falls down and the table collapses—one beat later.

It reminded me of a nightmare. It had that quality of relentless repetition.

It was supposed to have. I was for all practical purposes a Missouri farm kid. You couldn't surprise me too much. You've seen an awful lot. You've seen horses die and you've seen cows die and you've seen birth and all of that. And your or someone's uncle's a drunk. You know how people are and it's not really a shock to you. But to see in New York so much of it and carried to such extremes, and the poverty and degradation and where people had put themselves. Of course, I had lived in Chicago for a long while. But it was just more intense in this place. And I had never been around the drug scene much. That was new to me.

You seem to know an awful lot about the drug culture.

Strictly research. I'm not a druggie and never have been. So it's strictly how does that feel and what is that like and how much does it cost—strictly asking questions. And seeing people on it.

That play is sort of Brechtian, too, isn't it? That pretty tune with those bitter words, and the cast of characters—outcasts and hustlers.

Well, I had not read a single play of Brecht's when I wrote it. Of course, I knew the songs from The Threepenny Opera, but I wasn't thinking it was like that. New York was so new to me, I was just writing down what it was like. I was, to a large extent, like the character Darlene coming to this city.

In a lot of your plays, like Lemon Sky, you insist on reminding the audience that this is theater. Just as it gets drawn in, you have a character speak to the audience in an authorial voice, describing or commenting on what's happening.

I haven't been doing that very much lately. I haven't done it in the last few plays. It was in Serenading Louie, and I cut it out, and it's not really in The Mound Builders.

There's a tiny bit still in Serenading Louie. You have a couple of addresses to the audience.

I have a couple of addresses to the audience, yeah. But I mean, in Serenading Louie, they did say in the first draft, “Even when you're actors like us, hired on the stage to do a part, and everything is perfectly planned out and you know all your lines, still there's that awful feeling that, tonight, goddam it, I may just run amok with the meat cleaver.” And I cut that out and just had them speak that in character, so it's the character, not the actor talking to the audience. It's just very natural for me to have the character talk to the audience. In The Mound Builders I don't have the character talking to the audience, but to the tape recorder.

I don't mean just talking to the audience. That's part of it, I guess. But, for example, in Lemon Sky the young son, the protagonist, gives the audience a lot of hints about what's going to happen in the rest of the play. He's the playwright in a way.

Yeah. It's autobiographical and it's my story, and he's a playwright. He's saying how he's organizing the play. That line, “A year from now I'll be in a park in Chicago with a letter in my pocket from Ronnie telling me that Carol is dead. But who would know that now?” was such a surprise to me when I wrote it. But I just was trying to give the audience the perception of the character that I had, that knowing what happened to that character, Carol, made remembering her incredibly painful. I was just trying to have them see her in a very different light. So everything she says after that, you say, “My God, this is the last time …” I always started out saying, “This is the stage, what can you do on it?” And I like real people better than abstract idea plays. I was very interested in the way people behave. So, given characters in more or less a set, or at least a setting, like platforms that represent an entire town, what can you do on that? How can you mess it up? I'm not doing that much any more because I'm not sure I believe that any more. Am I just doing it to make it interesting? Is it getting too tricky? And is it taking away from the character development—would the characters be deeper and more true if I was going through real time with them, rather than cutting around like that? I went through a long period of not trusting it. Then when I got to The Mound Builders it became the logical way to write, because they're examining shards and pieces and seeds and little bits of things and putting them together to make a story. So I thought it was trickily endemic to the piece to have it in shards and fragments and pieces that you put together yourself.

Do you read a lot of science and paleontology?

I used to have a subscription to Scientific American and Sky and Telescope. I still do some, but not as much as I did. I used to read science a lot.

And were you very religious at one time?

Yeah, I was converted in the black Baptist church in Lebanon, Missouri. Me and Patsy Johnson. The only white kids there, at the Bible school.

You have quite a few characters who want to believe in something, like Carl in Serenading Louie, for one.

What Carl believes in, of course, is that American dream, where the college quarterback falls in love with the homecoming queen and they get married and have two kids and live happily ever after. That's his religion, that's what he believes. And when that is not true it washes everything his life has built on out from under him, and he no longer has anything to believe in at all. If that's not true, he cannot function. Everything's been based on that. He goes to work every morning and makes a million bucks, and can deal with all that jangle that he has to deal with, based on that. And that base goes and he can no longer deal with anything. He's a tragic character, Carl. I like him a lot.

But he does believe …

Yeah, he does have that first speech about the church. I'm sorry. You were getting at something else.

I was getting at the saddest thing about him, that he doesn't really feel anything any more. Or so he says. There are two things happening there. He says he doesn't feel anything any more and compares himself to primitive people making sacrifices in order to have some feeling about something, and says that his wife is exposing their marriage to danger so as to feel something. But yet he really does feel so much.

He feels so much, but he can't let it get to him because it'll destroy him. And he does, and it does. He's so obsessed with Mary and what is happening to the foundation of his life, and he is not feeling many other things that he feels he should.

But he claims he's not feeling that much even about Mary.

But he certainly is. He has that outburst that denies it at the end of the first act. He says, “I see all of these things that go by like it was all happening in the movies and I say I don't feel anything but I do. But I don't understand it—why is she doing this? I want it back the way it was”—in other words, the way it was in fantasy.

The people in that play are very familiar.

Aren't they familiar?

The play wasn't very well-received by the reviewers here, was it?

In Washington it was well-received. All of the mature people are blown away by it. It's John Bishop's favorite play of mine, it's Marshall favorite play of mine, it's everyone's favorite play of mine.

Is it your favorite play of yours?

No, because there are a few technical things that don't quite work toward the end of the play. We finally got it working in Chicago—there's a new version of it—there's a few little technical fudgings around that work much better. It's not mine because it was so painful to go there and I very nearly went crazy writing that play. I kept losing it and I must have been in some very bad place. I kept damn near going crazy because I kept discovering things that I didn't want to know, and once I discovered them I didn't want to deal with it.

Is this one of the cases where the characters started to take over?

Oh, God, yeah! I started examining, “Why do you do that? Why do you feel that?” As I said, much of this was me. I was probing what I felt in four different areas, and the four different areas of me are the four characters. I wasn't trying to write myself. I just said, “How is that true to me? What do I feel about this?” And then I would check it out with friends of mine. I would say, “Would you read this and tell me if this is true to your experience?” And then they'd read it and go, “Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, my God! Yeah. Oh Lord!” And I'd say, “O.K. Thanks very much. I just wanted to make sure it wasn't too incredibly weird and private.” I was working this way on that play, and it led into some areas that I hadn't really intended to go into—all those weird, dark, black areas of Carl.

Do you mean the primitive person under the veneer?

Yeah. And that to destroy this marriage if it wasn't true was the absolute only recourse that he had. He had thought about just killing the child to bring them together, but for any number of reasons that wouldn't really work. It was very strange territory to be getting into. That all just started out with these two guys, when I was living in Glen Ellyn and coming in on the commuter train.

Where's Glen Ellyn?

It's a suburb of Chicago—way out and rather rich. Me and another guy had a very poor house in the woods. I worked at some art personnel service, and handled their correspondence, and wrote stories most of the time on their typewriter. So I came in looking like this [indicating his jeans and T-shirt] with all the advertising guys in their grey flannel suits at seven in the morning. And I was still living there when I worked at Fuller, Smith & Ross. I usually stayed very late in town, until eight or nine o'clock. Once I had nothing to do and was exhausted, and I went with some of the guys into this bar that they always went to, that I knew nothing about. They were all in their thirties and I was twenty. And they would down the martinis and get their ride home to the suburbs. It was the first time that I was in that crowd that was just one hour and three martinis away from closing time, on their way home to their wives. I saw those two guys, they had their arms around each other and their heads smashed together, so drunk, and they were talking, both in their three-piece suits. And they stood and held hands. And they were saying, “I love you, you know what I mean?” “I know what you mean. I love you too.” “I really love you, you know what I mean?” This was very embarrassing, they were both so drunk. And they split, and one went on one train and one went on the other. That's when I started thinking about these men relationships—this football with the boys on Sunday afternoon and all that. That was the genesis of that play. Men relationships where they talk so weird and so honestly and unguardedly and such bullshit.

And they fear and hate their wives.

Fear and hate their wives. Fear and hate and love their wives. And I thought, when have they ever expressed anything like that to their wives, even drunk? During orgasm is the only time they would have an experience that large, even if then.

You were 20 when you saw this image and then you wrote a play about it when you were 32?

I had been trying to write it. The bar where I sat with those account executives and layout artists—it was the first time I had ever been in it—was one of those midtown bars. It was so chic and quiet and fancy and has only the old standards like Ella Fitzgerald on the jukebox, and it's so low you can't hear anyway. Everything is carpeted and behind the bar they had these little Italian twinkle lights all in white, flickering off and on. I sat there listening to these people I worked with every day get progressively drunker and expose the most hideous things, being appalled at what was happening to these people and just learning altogether too much about them. Consequently, I thought for a long while that the play was going to take place in the bar on Christmas Eve. In that quiet, muted, uptown, dark, dark bar.

It took a long time to write that play. The first start of it was years earlier, before I did Lemon Sky. I had been working on Lemon Sky for years too, but one day I was trying to work on Serenading Louie and all of Lemon Sky came to me and I sat down and wrote it in a very short period. Then I went back to Serenading Louie. One of the starts was they've gone to one bar and it closed at six and now they've gone to one that closed at seven. Those midtown bars closed at what I used to think was the middle of the afternoon because their clientele was just the executive crowd. Their big season is lunch and from five to seven. It started with them coming in already pretty too high and the guy saying, “Wait. Wait. Hold it. Nobody moves.” The guy can't find his wallet. “Wait.” And then he finds it. I remember that very clearly, whatever happened to that note. It ended up not in the play. And gradually it started forming itself into Serenading Louie.

It's interesting. You have so much compassion and psychological insight and sensitivity, but there's one unredeemed character in your plays, I think, and that's Douglas [in Lemon Sky].

Might well be. I had more facts to go on there than in most of them. I said at the beginning of the play, “If I can't write this character honestly, then it tells you more about me than if I could.” What does Alan say? “If he comes off a shit, I mean nothing, but nothing, then that tells you more about him than if I could tell you more.” Because he wasn't all that bad.

But he seems horrible.

Well, he was fairly horrible. Maybe I was just closer to that particular villain—as far as I'm concerned—than to any of the others. Maybe I should have more unredeemed characters. I'm beginning to think they're too nice. But, see, the reason for what you call compassion and all of that, in my work and in things I saw, at some point I'd see an out-and-out villain, and I'd say, “Oh, come off it. No one is that black and no one is that white. Let's grey them out a little bit.” I'd see someone who was essentially evil and I'd say, “What do they want? And what are their redeeming qualities?”

You mean you'd ask yourself quite systematically?

Yeah. It can't be that black and white. What is under that, and what causes that? As soon as you investigate where some horrible behavior comes from, then the character begins to round out and everyone sort of rounds out till there are no villains.

Carl, for example, does the worst thing that anybody could possibly do …

Oh yeah, Carl is a mass murderer.

And yet you can feel pity for him. But Douglas …

Oh, well. That's one of the best characters I've ever written, Carl. I've written about eight really good theater characters and Carl is one of them.

I was going to say that Douglas is so overwhelmingly repulsive that …

Is he? Oh, good. I'm not feeling particularly kind to him today. … I wrote that as best I could, and couldn't go back and do it any different.

Who are the other seven or six good characters?

I think Gloria in Gingham Dog is a wonderful character. She's a very beautiful, well-rounded character. I think you know that person.

Yeah, I agree.

And Matt Friedman in Talley's Folly. It's almost a better role than he is a character, but I think he's really a very good character too. Who else? There are three or four really good roles in Hot l [The Hot l Baltimore], but they're not really characters.

Who in the latest one, Angels Fall?

There may not be one that I consider that. But right under that is all of them. Certainly the professor.

I was very moved by his speech doubting his academic calling.

That comes from one term of teaching summer school, and talking to the professors in the professors' lounge.

How long ago?

Just about four years ago. I think he's a terrific character. Doherty is too. But I really think Niles …

He's harder to make sympathetic.

Yeah. It's really a deeper examination of a character than Doherty. Doherty has a simple life. It's pared down and by design simpler. Still it could probably be more interesting than that. But Niles is very close. I don't know if he's quite that good or not. There are some others.

There's a kind of bonding, isn't there, between Niles and the Indian?

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. A kind of bonding is exactly right. There are very strong similarities. There are strong similarities between so many of the characters, and one aspect of one character is very sympathetic to another aspect of another character. I like that very much—where Doherty and Niles and the Indian all sympathize with certain areas of Zappy and Zappy reflects all of them in one way or another.

Leslie Fiedler has a thesis in an essay that's become a classic of literary criticism, called “Come Back Ag'in to the Raft, Huck Honey” and …

He wrote that? I know that essay.

His idea is that the central myth in American literature is of homoerotic love between two men of different races. And also that women are not at the passionate center of American literature.

We've certainly seen that, the bonding of two disparate men. It's true, there's a very strong thesis. We've seen it in all those movies—The Sting, Sundance Kid, and all of that. It's a very interesting essay.

You know it?

Yeah. I'm from Missouri, don't you know—Mark Twain territory. I've been to Hannibal, I've seen that river there.

Is there anything that anybody can do to get playwriting out of its position as stepchild of the literary arts in this country?

We're so easily dismissed at the time. We're only considered at the time. All of the literary critics are into something very different from my work, that's for sure. They're into Pinter.

I don't think they're really much into any contemporary dramatists.

They're into things they can write about. It's almost a vested interest. Our plays are interesting to them years later. But when they see them they can dismiss them. Who said—Gide, was it, who said, “Don't understand me too quickly”? I think we're being understood too quickly and on a very superficial level. Some of the plays that we're working on take as long as novels. Some of the plays that I've written have taken four or five years, and they've been worked out very carefully. And they're dismissed in a short paragraph in the Partisan Review. The academic mind is analytical and I don't think it can cope very well with current events, with things that are happening now. Like, the behavior at that table [Wilson indicates nearby table of people in the café] is more interesting than all the plays of Shakespeare, but they couldn't possibly cope with that. They can spend their life analyzing Cleopatra, but they can't cope very well with the present moment. Theater is the present moment. That's happening now. And I think when they see it they dismiss it. They're not really seeing what has been put into the work.

None of us are taking the risks we should be. It's never chancy enough, never risky enough. You're never out on a limb. While you're working on it you think you are, and you're trying to go as far as you can with something. And when you get it all finished, you say, “It's so safe.”

Is that because of concern for the box office?

No, no, God no, you don't think of that at all. I'm in an insulated situation where it doesn't matter at all. I don't care if they go uptown. Going uptown's such a hassle, because right away they start replacing people and then you don't have what you worked so hard to create in the rehearsal. You don't have that magical ensemble.

I meant are you concerned that you won't get put on?

Oh, see, I'll get put on. I'll get put on and run for the subscribers. I guess we always feel this about ourselves: I want to not be put on. I want to have people get up and leave. No one gets up and leaves. They only leave out of boredom. Of course, they always say it's boredom. You know, 16 people take off their clothes and stab each other, and people get up and leave because they say they're bored. And it's not really bored at all. They unplugged and therefore are not hearing anything. Not nearly risky enough. Some of my earlier things were riskier.

In what ways?

I can't say it. It just seems so tame. The reason I wrote Hot l Baltimore is that I'd finished writing Serenading Louie, and aside from not wanting to write another tragedy, the one thing I was dissatisfied with was they're so goddam suburban. They're so pale, they've got no color to them. They're all beige. They're beige and they're chic and they have well-rounded sentences, and we're trying to get to the underbelly of them. Just such chic people. I want to write the way Dickens did, I want to write outrageous characters. And that's how Hot l Baltimore came about. I was trying to write more outrageous characters. The characters in Serenading Louie were just too damned socially acceptable.

What might be both your glory and your handicap is that you're always charming. Is that what you mean?

That's even more insidious. That I feel after Angels Fall. It's certainly true of Talley's Folly. They're funny and they're warm and they're human and they're in love. And, damn it, they're charming. I am very pleased with Don Tabaka in Angels Fall because people say, “Well he's just so belligerent, I didn't like him.” Wonderful! Great! I've actually written a character, then, that maybe didn't have charm. I don't think he has much charm. Every once in a while a little bit of something cracks through, but not in that same charming kind of way. I'd like to think I've written at least one character in the last six years that wasn't completely charming, because Zappy is charming and Marion is charming and all the others are charming in one way or another. But Don is a little more abrasive.

Is that charm one of the reasons you're sometimes compared to Chekhov? Or is it the elegiac note?

Do you know, I hate being compared to Chekhov? It's because we're both trying to concentrate on character and theme and story—although they say we aren't—and action be damned in a way.

And atmosphere?

Yeah, action be damned, but atmosphere all over the joint. And I love him a lot and can't come up to his ankles, but one day. … I'm after Chekhov's and O'Neill's ass, right? Chekhov is charming. Couldn't write a negative character that wasn't charming in some way if he had to. If that's my heel, then I'll limp on it. But I haven't thought that. At the same time I had wanted to write a negative character. I would like to write an Iago. I would like to write a son of a bitch. You say Douglas is. That gives me great hope. I'm going to try to do it again, either in A Tale Told or in the one after. The next original play—if I ever write again: I worked too hard, too continuously on the last one [Angels Fall]—is going to be a play for Lindsay Crouse. She's one of the best people in our company, and the only play she's been in of mine is Serenading Louie. She played Gabby. She and Tanya Berezin are the two ballsiest actors I've ever worked with. Tanya plays Marion in Angels Fall. Now, that's ballsy. In Brontosaurus she damned near cracked the antique chair—I would have killed her because it was my chair—gripping the back of it in that last speech when she says, “Get out of my house.”

In Brontosaurus she says, “Maybe the reason I don't live with anybody is that I don't want anybody to foul up my nest.” That's the Craig's Wife syndrome, but in Craig's Wife she's horrible. In Brontosaurus the Dealer is a very sympathetic figure.

Yeah. What about the other character, the nephew? He is very strange, isn't he?

I felt a lot of menace in him and you're not supposed to, are you? But he scared me.

No, I think there is. Do you know, it's interesting you should say that, because I said once and I'm toying with this—I have a thought for a thriller, and if I write it, it's going to be another Serenading Louie and I'm going to be sorry I ever touched it, right? But I said, “What if that nephew, instead of being, theatrically at least, passive, were active? What if he were a terrorist?” Instead of a benign terrorist, what if he were an active terrorist? Of course, he's antithetical to everything she believes in, though there was a speech that I think I did not get in. She says, “How can I relate to someone who thinks that the most perfectly crafted Louis Quinze chair is just waiting for the time when that wood decays back into the earth and becomes useful?” And that's his philosophy. That didn't get in there, but …

The feeling did.

The feeling's in there. You certainly know that those are the two points of view. So I said, what if he were an active terrorist? And had at least one sidekick and got maybe another one during the course of the play. What if they were not in New York City but way out somewhere, like in Montauk, where the houses are a quarter of a mile apart in some of those areas. And then I put an architect buddy into it, who is 70, and the two people are so weak, they would essentially be held hostage and would have to get out of it in some way. It's very exciting to me. The thing that isn't exciting to me is that it's one of those plays—it's Desperate Hours or any of those others. But still, with her, and this architect, and the other guy. He is threatening in some way, you know, and maybe if he were just insidiously threatening, strangely threatening, so that you didn't quite know, rather than being overt. I think there's a perfectly fabulous thriller in that, and with all of my potential dialogue I'll be able to fuck up, right? I'll be able to completely ruin a great commercial idea.

But you won't start with a plot. Even when you talk—you have a great plot for a thriller, and you end up talking about a character.

It's not a plot at all, it's character. And I would have to, I guess, in that kind of play. I've sat in front of those plays in awe. I sat in front of the first act, at least, of Deathtrap in awe. Shocked and thrilled and so excited. I couldn't believe my eyes. How on earth can anyone do that? I think it's one of the most perfect things that's ever been written—the first act of that. And finally, at the very last line of the act, you understand what everything is. Everything has been a hoax. Then, of course, the second act has the reaction from that, and that's not so effective. That's miraculous, and you have to be excited about it and in awe of it, because I could not possibly do that. I could sit down with numbers and a chart and a book telling me how to do it, and I couldn't do it.

But that's Sardoodledum, too, isn't it?

That's Sardoodledum, yeah. But I'm in awe of Sardou, of all those people. I love it, because it's something that I couldn't do if I tried. And I'll probably have to steal someone else's plot if I ever write that kind of a play. I'll have to take a Sardou. Wouldn't that be nice? And the audiences will be bored out of their minds and say, “Nothing happened!” which they always do anyway.

This is another aspect of everything that I write I've experienced in one way or another. When I had The Gingham Dog typed up by Studio Duplicating Service, the first time I'd ever had anything professionally typed, I went in to pick it up and they said, “seventy-three dollars” and I wrote out a check and gave it to them. And I had this box of scripts. I wasn't even excited about seeing what they looked like anymore because he didn't say, “That is one hell of a script.” He hadn't liked it. Probably hadn't even read it, you know, but he didn't say, “The typist said this is really …” Nothing. They were the first people to read the script and they said nothing about it. I was destroyed. I couldn't believe it. I went home and sat around and smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of coffee and didn't open the thing. I had opened it in the cab and looked at it and said, “That really looks professional.” I didn't take them out of the box for about two days. Didn't show them to anyone.

You know, all writers are like that. They're saying, “Love me, love me.”

Like it! Love me, slove me, you know. Like the work, respond to the work. Say, “I know that,” or “You said it in a way that I couldn't have said,” or “I understand that, you're talking about me, you're not alone.” And that is the speech in The Mound Builders when she says, “I had a little typist come in and type it up for me. And I gave her the check and she left and I threw it in the closet and got drunk for four days and wouldn't answer the door.” And he says, “Because it was finished?” and she says, “Because I thought she hadn't liked it.” Two lines that got gasps from the audience, and Tanya Berezin said both of them. That's one. The other one is in Serenading Louie, they're talking about how wonderful it was, Mary and—Tanya's all wrong for Mary but she played Mary here. She played her brilliantly, but Mary should look like a homecoming queen and Tanya just does not.

What was the line?

Oh, this works out of context. The other line in [The] Mound Builders works in context. They're talking about how wonderful it was when they were serenading Louie “back then” at the beginning of their romance and how wonderful it was sleeping together when he went back to school to get his degree. There's this long description of sex with Carl, waking up and having sex again in the morning. She turns to the audience and says, “I don't really think I loved him then. But I love him then now.”

That's a wonderful line, and a wonderful idea too.

The audience went “Oh!” en masse. The other one was “Because I thought she hadn't liked it.” And the audience, en masse, went “Shiiit.” It was really something when she hit it right.

You don't write these plays in isolation, do you?

I work well with all of this energy around, and I write in the office often. But I'm cutting out, you know, I'm using the energy and I'm not hearing anything when I'm working. It's just me and the characters and the time, and then I unplug and hear everyone. And I work like that until they begin to get on my nerves. Then I go out to Sag Harbor and I work in isolation until I say, “I am so lonely I can't stand it. Is anyone involved in the theater any more?” Then I go back and everyone's rehearsing for things and I'm very excited and energized again, until I say—and it's usually three or four weeks—I say, “I can't stand all of this damned irrelevant noise.” Usually it's because I've plugged into something very strongly and I'm trying to develop a new character or a new idea, and I can't with that much noise around. So I go back out to Sag Harbor and work out in isolation again.

But I don't work in isolation, do I? I have them read me a lot of the scenes, over and over and over again as I'm trying to get them, and then other scenes I don't at all. They never see them until they see the whole script.

You have specific actors in mind.

Oh, yeah, I don't work in a vacuum. I have actors in mind. The character comes first and then I say, “Who could play that?” and “Oh, God, that would be perfect for …” Then I have that actor in mind to play the part so that I can say, “You're awfully tall to keel over in that way,” because I know Fritz Weaver is awfully tall. And that line played by someone who's perfectly all right for the part, but isn't tall, will have to be cut. It can certainly be cut without losing anything.

Has anyone been in your plays as long as Tanya Berezin?

Michael Warren Powell—I came to New York with Michael and a guy named Dean Morgan. And Michael was in a number of plays of mine. He was in So Long At the Fair and Home Free! and …

Speaking of outrageous, Home Free! is pretty outrageous.

But those are so early. You know, I go back and look at those and say, “Oh, my God, why aren't I outrageous anymore!” I thought I was going to be more outrageous with the professor [in Angels Fall] but he's so civil. He's just so socially acceptable. Even if he is flipping out. I have to get a little more unacceptable. Good Lord, if we were happy with ourselves, what would we do?

You wouldn't be an artist.

No. Well, we wouldn't be able to do the next one. We'd just rest on the old laurel.

Is The Mound Builders your favorite?

Yeah. The Mound Builders is my favorite, Serenading Louie is Marshall's favorite. The Mound Builders is just damn old deeper than anything I've done. It also does what I intended to do. As I said, I started out to write something and finished it and said, “By God, I wrote that. I really did do that.” There are things in Mound Builders that I didn't know. They say things I didn't know until I wrote them. I don't know where they came from. And there are fun technical things in The Mound Builders that I just jump up and down about, that are invisible to an audience. There's one section where—I say the play is about work—within a page, a scene has been going on and another scene has been going on and then they all come back through the room, and within a page everyone's work has been mentioned. August goes off to raise money with the kid—he's going to meet some bank president. “Just tell him we'll name it the First Bank of Carbondale Village, that might do it.” He goes off to raise money. Dan goes back out to the dig, Cynthia starts to go back out to the dig, and has this cutting conversation, the only one, with the gynecologist, Jean. She's saying, “Get back to your own work and stop doing his,” and Jean says something like, “Well, it didn't bother you”—Cynthia has her photographic equipment all around—“you're still working.” And Cynthia says, “Yeah, I have several thousand pictures of Kirsten” or something like that. She implies that she had intended to be a photographer, I mean, to be an artist. And Jean says, “Had you thought about a photographic career?” and Cynthia says, “No, no, forget I ever mentioned it.” Anyway, in that tangle of people going through, the work of every single person on stage is mentioned, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang—like that [knocking table], and I had been leading up to it for 15 minutes, to get them all into that position. Well, I just jumped up and down. It's just this ganglia of the theme of the underbelly of the play. Would anyone notice that? Of course not. But what a thrill that was to get that in.

People don't write about work, do they?

Well, certainly not why we work. I do it a whole lot.

I remember reading an essay by George Orwell, saying that Dickens wrote a lot about working classes but he never wrote about what they did. He never really wrote about the working.

Interesting. My very first thought, of course, was Our Mutual Friend that begins with the man and his daughter collecting bodies off the Thames, which is what they do. That's their work. And sell them to the hospital for experimentation.

In both The Mound Builders and Serenading Louie, for some reason, which you say are your favorites …

I like 5th of July, I like Hot l. I think they're very entertaining and important in saying things I'd always wanted to do. But those are the two best. Both commercially unsuccessful.

Were they? I'm thinking about the bull mask and the god-king mask in those two plays.

Interesting. Hadn't thought of it. Only two times I've used masks. That cow mask that he thinks is a bull mask is very scary. And nothing like that flashlight flashing on him when he turns around like this, and has that gold mask on. He's in shorts, has on very little. It's very scary. All that is very scary.

That's a thriller.

Oh, that's a thriller. But that's what the other one would end up like, and that's not what I had in mind at all. That's what I mean when I say I map out a thriller, and then it'll end up being another Mound Builders and everyone will say, “I thought he was going to write a thriller.” That's not a thriller the way anyone understands thrillers. It would be a thriller for me.

The plots of many are just as banal—I'm thinking of the Huxley book. What's the name of it—The Genius and the Goddess or The Genius and the Showgirl? The Genius and the Goddess, I guess. Bo-ring! Stupid little story. With that accident out on the … ? Oh, give me a break! Talk about ridiculous coincidence. The same people who would write an essay on The Great Gatsby and take it terribly seriously would dismiss Angels Fall completely, because I had used the same format that William Inge used for Bus Stop.

You mean the idea of people clustering together?

Caught in a trap like a rat, yes. It's funny. When I realized the kind of play Angels Fall was, I said, “Oh, shit, I hate that kind of play. Oh, I don't like that sort of thing—trapped in a trap like a rat. God, I hate that sort of thing.”

It's a classic device though.

Yeah, of course it is. You know, it's The Tempest. Shipwrecked on an island. And a dozen other shipwrecked plays. But do they bring those up? No. They say Petrified Forest—you know, where you're at gunpoint—Petrified Forest and Bus Stop. Anyway. … Of course it is. I don't really mind it. I say, “Oh Lord, it falls into a category,” and you don't really like to do anything that you know is going to fall into a category. But you can't worry about that. You have to rise above it. I mean, you're writing about the characters and the world we live in, and if the peg falls into that particular hole in one aspect, you just have to be damn sure that you write as honestly and as uncomplicatedly as you can. And to say, “Well, that's not a bad hole to fall in.”

Do you mind when they compare you to Tennessee Williams?

Well, I grew up loving Tennessee Williams and I worked with him a couple of times and I liked him. You know, if they liked Tennessee Williams better, I wouldn't mind them comparing me to him. But they hate Tennessee Williams, so why should. … Oh, they hate everything he did in the last fifteen years since Night of the Iguana. Do I mind? I don't like being compared to things, because it's a way of dismissing something. As soon as you can say, “Oh, that's like something,” then you don't have to look into what it is. It's like something else. Therefore, everyone else has already analyzed all of this, so everything that they say applies to this. Bullshit! It doesn't at all. It's very different.

It's a way of getting a handle on things, like stereotyping.

Yeah, like stereotyping. It's grabbing a handle, grabbing a quick handle and dismissing it for that. I'm not at all like Tennessee Williams. I'm very different from him. I think we both are concerned about theme and language and time. But I don't think I write any more like Tennessee Williams than I write like Dickens or James Saunders or Faulkner or Fitzgerald or any of those.

Are your characters based on specific people?

Sometimes it's people I've seen, then I've seen someone else that's very like that, and the second time reinforces and finally it imprints it. Like the professor, and like Gloria in Gingham Dog. And any number of people for Matt Friedman [in Talley's Folly]. He's made up of about six very specific, different people.

Speaking of stereotypes, when I started to read your plays I thought, “He must be a Southern writer. He tells stories.”

And there are people who say I don't know how to tell a story. Every time I write something there's one reviewer who says, “Oh God, I wish Lanford Wilson would collaborate with someone who could write a good play, because his characters and dialogue and sense of place are always better than anyone could touch. But he doesn't know how to write a play.” I'm incapable of writing the sort of play that he wants.

What does he want?

Tight action. This happens and then that happens. What they're really asking for and don't know how to say it, is what E. M. Forster said you have to have in a novel. This happened and then that happened. They want event, event, event, event, event. In some of the collage plays I do that. I hope I still have the ability to do that, because I'd like to do an event play again. It would be interesting to see how I could get event, event, event with a deep character development. I'd like to do a picaresque play again too. I haven't done that in a while.

Principal Works

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So Long at the Fair (play) 1963

Home Free! (play) 1964

The Madness of Lady Bright (play) 1964

No Trespassing (play) 1964

Balm in Gilead (play) 1965

Days Ahead (play) 1965

Ludlow Fair (play) 1965

The Sand Castle (play) 1965

Sex Is Between Two People (play) 1965

This Is the Rill Speaking (play) 1965

The Rimers of Eldritch (play) 1966

Wandering: A Turn (play) 1966

Miss Williams: A Turn (play) 1967

The Gingham Dog (play) 1968

Lemon Sky (play) 1968

One Arm [adaptor; from Tennessee Williams's short story] (screenplay) 1970

Serenading Louie (play) 1970

The Great Nebula in Orion (play) 1971

Sextet (Yes): A Play for Voices (play) 1971

Summer and Smoke [adaptor; from Tennessee Williams's play] (libretto) 1971

The Family Continues (play) 1972

Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye (play) 1972

The Hot l Baltimore (play) 1973

The Migrants [with Tennessee Williams] (screenplay) 1973

The Mound Builders (play) 1975

Brontosaurus (play) 1977

5th of July (play) 1978; revised as Fifth of July, 1982

Taxi (screenplay) 1978

Talley's Folly (play) 1979

*A Tale Told (play) 1981; revised as Talley & Son, 1985

Thymus Vulgaris (play) 1981

Angels Fall (play) 1982

The Three Sisters [translator; from Anton Chekhov's play] (play) 1984

A Betrothal (play) 1986

The Bottle Harp (play) 1987

Burn This (play) 1987

Say DeKooning (play) 1987

A Poster of the Cosmos (play) 1988

The Moonshot Tape (play) 1990

Redwood Curtain (play) 1991

By the Sea by the Sea by the Beautiful Sea (play) 1996

Book of Days (play) 1998

Rain Dance (play) 2000

*Initially, this play was titled Regarding the Bosom of Abraham. Also produced as The War in Lebanon.

Leslie Kane (essay date 1985-86)

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SOURCE: Kane, Leslie. “The Agony of Isolation in the Drama of Anton Chekhov and Lanford Wilson.” Philological Papers 31 (1985-86): 20-6.

[In the following essay, Kane compares Wilson to Anton Chekhov in terms of their preference for realism in their works and their characterizations of solitude.]

In contemporary drama we have become accustomed to the drifter, the loner, the single—a character who is emotionally detached from others and who quests, usually with little success, for connections. This problem of isolation is not a new one, nor is it a peculiarly contemporary one. The agony of isolation and the efforts of characters to mitigate that agony received empathetic treatment in the drama of Anton Chekhov. More than any other dramatist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chekhov was cognizant of ontological solitude. He knew, suggests Robert Corrigan, that “each man is alone and that he seeks to maintain his solitude,” but “he also knew that for each man solitude is unbearable.”1 Chekhov's experimentation with dramatic form, content, and linguistic methodology is a function of his intention to convey realistically the struggle of his characters to maintain privacy and the need for his characters to share their pain. In the twentieth century numerous dramatists, particularly J. J. Bernard, Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter, have focused upon existential loneliness and experimented with techniques which would underscore the difficulty—or impossibility—of communication. But unlike Bernard, who reveals the pain of isolation through one reticent character; Beckett, who situates his characters in surrealist settings; and Ionesco and Pinter, who defamiliarize reality, the contemporary American playwright Lanford Wilson, closely paralleling Chekhov, situates his loners in realistic settings to expose authentically both their need for privacy and their desire for connection.

Both playwrights are noted for their authentic portraits of reality—their realistic settings, speech patterns, communal activities, seemingly arbitrary landscapes, character details, and aimless dialogue. Yet, on closer scrutiny we observe that Chekhov and Wilson subtly balance clearly delimited specificity of detail, psychological time, and anthropocentric chronicity in order to achieve emotional realism: the reality of isolation.

Typically in these plays we find families, whether literal or extended, gathered in confined settings. Communal reunions of the clan are characteristic of both playwrights. In Chekhov's Uncle Vanya the family has gathered to spend summer holiday, in The Three Sisters to celebrate Irina's birthday, in The Cherry Orchard to forestall the sale of the homestead. Similarly in Wilson's Rimers of Eldritch townspeople come together to identify a criminal and purify their town, in 5th of July to participate in the burial of Matt and to negotiate the sale of the house, in Hot l Baltimore to share a cup of coffee, pick up a game of checkers, commiserate about eviction. A device employed by both playwrights, that of restricted settings, underscores the fact that characters in close physical contact are rarely, if ever, in emotional contact. Attempts to forge connections are frustrated. On this subject Millie in Hot l Baltimore sadly muses: “there are very few people living here whom I would remember a year after they left.”2

In order to portray life as it is Chekhov and Wilson define characters by their solitude and estrangement from life, not by their participation in it. “Private people,” as Matt Friedman terms them in Talley's Folly,3 although ostensibly united for a communal purpose, remain a community of strangers irrevocably separated by personal needs, disappointments, and fears. Isolation is not mitigated by commingling; rather, it is intensified. In Chekhov's drama efforts to break out of the imprisonment of isolation are foiled or gently mocked: confidences are ignored, confessions fall on deaf ears. For example, in The Three Sisters, Andrey, once an accomplished musician, respected professor, and happily married man, finds himself a failure in life and in love. He is surrounded, indeed suffocated, by his family; yet he is in desperate need of a confidant. Ironically, the man to whom Andrey finally confides is the deaf old man, Ferapont. Similarly in this drama Masha, devastated by news of the imminent departure of her lover Vershinin, seeks to share her pain and confess her love to her sisters. To impede communication Olga quite literally gets up, goes behind a dressing curtain, and rejects Masha's confession: “Whatever stupid things you say, it doesn't matter. I'm not listening.”4 Olga seeks to deny knowledge of Masha's adulterous affair, but in so doing she intensifies Masha's agony and her own.

Likewise, in Wilson's dramas, confessions, often long-winded and highly emotional, are intentionally short-circuited. In Talley's Folly, for example, Matt confesses his love for Sally and his desire to marry her. Sally's initial response to the proposal is an outright denial and rejection: “You didn't say that. Don't say that. … Talk about your socialism, talk about your work or something” (46). Understanding that Sally's rejection of the words is a rejection of the emotional connection the words imply, Matt repeatedly asks, “What are you afraid of?” but receives no answer. While ostensibly complying with Sally's demand to talk about nonthreatening issues, Matt carefully engineers the conversation on economics back in the direction of the merger between himself and Sally. While she does not acknowledge his proposal in so many words, the circuitous confession of love is concluded with a kiss, a nonverbal implication of their future merger. In Wilson's drama confessions do not always end resolved on a conciliatory note. In Hot l Baltimore, for example, Suzy's champagne farewell party is interrupted by the untimely arrival of her taxi and bulldozers barking at the door. A few sharp words elicit her hasty departure, but within moments she is back in the lobby bawling, “I know you love me, I can't leave like that. … We've been a family, haven't we. My family” (135-36). Her confession of need is punctuated by a “stupefied gawking silence.” In striking contrast to the noisy bulldozers, no one confirms, denies, consoles.

Characters who are of obvious concern to Chekhov and Wilson are the loners, the outcasts, the social aliens. In The Cherry Orchard we observe that Gaev is alienated from the group because of his age and anachronistic ideas as is Treplev in The Sea Gull for his iconoclastic artistic values. Those differing in lifestyles, sexual preference, religious and political beliefs are similarly separated in Wilson's drama. In Rimers [Rimers of Eldritch] Cora and Skelly are branded by the townspeople because of their sexual attitudes and behavior, in Talley's Folly and 5th of July we learn that Matt, the “no-good Jew,” was not only barred from acceptance into Sally's family because of his religious affiliation, but in Sally's words, caused her “to be thrown out of the family” as well.5 In 5th of July Ken's homosexuality and service in the Vietnam War serve to underscore the disjunction between him and former associates. Wilson suggests that these social aliens, having developed protective shells in what Matt terms a “Humpty Dumpty Complex,” find themselves unable to get close to others for fear that they will risk vulnerability and exposure (49).

Physical impairment of characters is a dramatic device used extensively by Wilson to reinforce the impression of alienation. In Rimers we observe that Eva's crippled back sets her apart from the activities and companionship of other young girls; in Talley's Folly that Sally's tuberculosis and subsequent pelvic infection have rendered her a sterile and neglected old maid; in 5th of July that the paraplegic war veteran permanently confined to his wheelchair is similarly cut off from relationships and aspirations.

Disjunction between characters and within characters, central to both playwrights, is communicated to the audience through a series of rhetorical techniques, such as contrapuntal speech, unanswered questions, choral repetitions, and the use of silent characters, all of which expose and enforce an impression of isolation. Choral and contrapuntal speech, whereby two or more characters are speaking concurrently, is frequently employed by Chekhov to indicate separation. In the arrival scene of The Cherry Orchard, for example, the thoughts and emotions of Mme Ranevsky, Gaev, Charlotta, Pishtchik, Dunyasha, and Varya overlap and cut across one another. Exhausted from the long trip and the lateness of the hour as well as the trauma of returning from Paris destitute, Ranevsky is nevertheless exhilarated by the sight of her beloved nursery. Memories of her childhood and her son flood her mind. Amid the cacophony of Gaev's complaints about the rail system and Dunyasha's chatter about her love life, Ranevsky is alone in her thoughts and in her pain.

Like Chekhov, in Hot l Baltimore Wilson sharpens our awareness of the disjunction between people by extensive use of cacophony. In the stage instructions to this play he specifically indicates that actors chosen for these roles should represent a wide range: baritone, thin-voiced, high and cracking, mezzo, alto. These sounds are orchestrated into a cacophonous response to eviction. Impotent against expulsion and dispersion, boarders nonetheless give voice to their fear of separation by verbally striking out against one another and the flophouse which has become their home. Cacophony is used more frequently in Wilson's plays to impede communication. Interruption of speech and speeches which cut across one another create an impression of disjunction rather than unity. An excellent example of the dramatic effectiveness of this technique occurs in the trial sequences of Rimers, scenes which are themselves juxtaposed with those of ritual and prayer.

Still another way in which Chekhov and Wilson reveal the pain of isolation is through the use of pauses. Pauses which typically indicate a hesitation to find a word, meditation on spoken dialogue, developing tension, and continuing thought processes are often employed by these playwrights to indicate some painful emotion intentionally left unsaid and unshared. In The Three Sisters, for example, Tusenbach intends to duel Solyony and suspects that he will not return alive. He hesitates before departing and we think for a moment that he will confide his fear and his love to his fiancée Irina. Instead, he off-handedly requests that she leave instructions to have coffee ready for his return. The unspoken in this situation exposes the essential estrangement between them. In 5th of July we are presented with a situation in which those gathered for the spreading of Matt's ashes are quite vocal on the subject of cremation, in general, and the spreading of Matt's ashes in the river, in particular. Sally's failure to remember where she deposited the ashes causes her to cancel this group activity, but we may suspect that her absentmindedness, while realistic and authentic, may in fact be a device to cut off conversation about a subject of great pain to her. Interestingly, we eventually learn that Sally, having retrieved the ashes from the refrigerator, quietly accomplishes her mission assisted only by Jed, Ken's reticent lover.

As these scenes illustrate, forging linguistic links is difficult, if not impossible. To dramatize this point Chekhov and Wilson often employ silent characters who are mute or intentionally reticent. They communicate their isolation in life by their linguistic withdrawal from it. In Chekhov's Three Sisters Masha rarely participates in conversations, in Uncle Vanya Sonya admits little about her love and loss, in The Cherry Orchard Varya will not comment on the proposal never forthcoming from Lopachin. In Wilson's plays characters like Bill in Hot l Baltimore and Jed in 5th of July serve in great part as silent listeners who absorb the pain of others while revealing little of their own, while Eva in Rimers retreats into silence to protect herself and her secret.

Characters in the plays of Chekhov and Wilson have well-developed, authentic, and appropriately convincing defenses to protect them against the agony of isolation. Chekhovian characters escape isolation by the relative security of memory or the relative promise of philosophy in order to forge a link in time or meaning, if not in relationships. In Uncle Vanya Astrov passionately involves himself in planting and protecting forests. For Gaev it is mental billiards, for Vanya work, for Tchebutykin drink, for Vershinin speech making, for Treplev playwriting.

Similarly in Wilson's plays we note elaborate devices to detract from the pain of loneliness: in Rimers Eva takes long walks in the woods with Robert, in Hot l Baltimore a young call girl helps a stranger try to locate his grandfather, in 5th of July Gwen buys music groups, copper mines, and male companionship.

In the plays of Chekhov and Wilson the pain of isolation determine both the subject and the dramatic structure. Chekhov is a master of subtlety; his plays of indirection are impressionistic, relying upon nuance, inference, tone, and repetition to implicitly convey alienation. Beginning with reunion and concluding with dispersion, beginning with spring and concluding with fall, Chekhov conveys a pervasive mood of loneliness. For all their talk about the future and about the past, about culture and about politics, about themselves and about others, few Chekhovian characters directly address the topic of isolation. This omission of the obvious is purposeful. We sense Gaev's pain when he talks to bookcases but is silenced by family, Andrey's when he eschews his family and opts for a deaf confidant, Treplev's when he chooses suicide. The agony of these characters is apparent and in the view of minimalist Chekhov would be diminished by verbalization.

Writing seventy years after Chekhov, Wilson paints a chaotic, noisy world, a world ringing with interruptions, obscenities, and angry confrontations authentic to a post-World War II, post-Vietnam America. Neither subtle nor impressionistic, this contemporary playwright directly addresses the issues of our time: alienation, dispersion, disconnection. In place of the family units we observed in Chekhov's plays, we find characters brought together by chance and by circumstance: they board in the same hotel, they live in the same town. They are strangers who pass on the stairs, friends who have no basis for friendship. But, as in Chekhov's plays loneliness is the basic condition of their lives and its pain has made them bitter, disillusioned, irritable, vulnerable. They seek out companionship even if it is temporary; they engage in conversations even if they are superficial. The passage of time in these plays does not take place leisurely; abruptly we are made to see disruption and disjunction.

In drawing us into a world in which those who are alienated contribute to alienation, Wilson, like the nineteenth-century playwright may indeed be suggesting that we are too comfortable with isolation. Like the wheelchair which supports and traps Ken, isolation is a defensive mechanism less threatening than connection. In isolating ourselves we hope to diminish the pain and risk of involvement, but, he seems to feel, agony is unavoidable.

With empathy and with sensitivity, rather than with cynicism and judgment both Chekhov and Wilson applaud our tentative, sometimes successful efforts to communicate and connect. More often, they commiserate in our pain.

Criticism on Lanford Wilson—the little that currently does exist—has somehow missed seeing the strongly similar techniques of Chekhov and this modern American playwright. With few exceptions serious scholars have largely ignored Wilson, while theater critics have generally dismissed him as derivative and imitative.6 “Only Chekhov can write Chekhov”, quips Edith Oliver in her review of 5th of July,7 and Robert Brustein, echoing a similar refrain in his review of the same play suggests that 5th of July is a “kind of Cherry Orchard for the tourist trade.”8 Ruby Cohn's treatment of Wilson in New American Dramatists: 1960-1980 is superficial; a mere four pages in length, it yields little more than chronology, plot summary, and passing reference to the similarity between Tennessee Williams and Wilson.9 This comparison is intriguing because parallels may also be drawn between Williams and Chekhov, but Cohn neither pursues nor develops this line of thought. Of more substance is Henry Schvey's essay, “Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson.” Identifying the portrayal of the outcast as the thematic link in Wilson's drama, Schvey draws parallels between O'Neill and Wilson and Chekhov and Wilson, particularly in their use of setting as metaphor. But, again, these parallels are not developed. In what Schvey himself terms “a simple comparison” between Hot l Baltimore and The Cherry Orchard, the critic in one sentence judges Wilson's play as “overly schematic” and Chekhov's as “complex and double-edged.”10 Far more satisfying is the fine critical chapter on Lanford Wilson in American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. Gautam Dasgupta rightly observes that Wilson's plays lack resolution, focus on the passage of time, human fragility, and the nature of love, are nostalgic in spirit, distinguished by the subtlety of their characterizations, and generally comic in orientation, but tinged with sadness.11 What this critic, too, has overlooked is that the elements characterizing Wilson's drama similarly characterize Chekhov's.

It would seem, therefore, on the basis of strong similarities that Wilson's debt to Chekhov is implicit in his techniques, characterizations, themes, use of symbols, affirmative rhythm, and compassionate tone.12 Instead of minimizing Wilson's drama as a less satisfying copy of Chekhov, we would do better to apply our critical energies toward recognizing his talent, innovation, and contribution to American drama.


  1. Robert W. Corrigan, “The Plays of Chekhov,” in The Theatre in Search of a Fix (New York: Dell, 1973) 126; 133-34.

  2. Lanford Wilson, The Hot l Baltimore (New York: Hill and Wang, 1973) 67.

  3. Lanford Wilson, Tally's Folly (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979) 35.

  4. Anton Chekhov's Plays, trans. Eugene K. Bristow (New York: Norton, 1977) 142.

  5. Lanford Wilson, 5th of July (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978) 112.

  6. See, for example, Stanley Kauffmann, “How Sincere Can You Get,” Saturday Review (Sept. 1981): 46; John Simon, “Likable but Unlikely Transparent,” New York Magazine 15 May 1978: 77-80.

  7. Edith Oliver, “The Theatre: The Fifth of July,The New Yorker 8 May 1978: 90.

  8. Robert Brustein, “The Limits of Realism,” New Republic 23 May 1981: 25.

  9. Ruby Cohn, New American Dramatists: 1960-1980 (New York: Grove, 1982) 22-26.

  10. Essays on Contemporary Drama, ed. Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim (Munich: Hueber, 1981) 229.

  11. Gautam Dasgupta, “Lanford Wilson,” in Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta, American Playwrights: A Critical Survey (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981) 27-39.

  12. Although the playwright was unavailable for comment on his indebtedness to Chekhov, I have learned through the Circle Rep, where Wilson is resident playwright, that Wilson has just mastered Russian in order to translate and direct Chekhov's The Three Sisters. This suggests to me not only Wilson's continuing interest in Chekhovian drama, but a desire to capture subtleties available only through the original.

Lanford Wilson and David Savran (interview date 1 December 1986)

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SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and David Savran. “Lanford Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, pp. 306-20. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

[In the following interview, originally conducted December 1, 1986, Wilson discusses his early theatrical experiences, influences, and writing style.]

Born in Lebanon, Missouri, in 1937, Lanford Wilson was five when his parents divorced. His father moved to California (he wasn't to see him again for thirteen years) and he lived with his mother in a succession of rented houses before going to Chicago in 1956. There he took several jobs and finally moved to New York to become a playwright. Working at the Caffe Cino, Wilson quickly became one of the most active figures in the Off-Off Broadway movement of the mid-sixties. There, in 1964, he enjoyed his first major success with The Madness of Lady Bright. This was followed by a succession of full-length plays, most directed by his longtime associate Marshall Mason, including Balm in Gilead (1965), The Gingham Dog (1966) and The Rimers of Eldritch (1967). In 1968 he cofounded Circle Repertory Company, which since has premiered most of his work. His later plays include Lemon Sky (1970), The Hot l Baltimore (1973), The Mound Builders (1975), Serenading Louie (1976), Angels Fall (1982), Burn This (1986) and the “Talley Trilogy,” consisting of Fifth of July (1978), the Pulitzer Prize-winning. Talley's Folly (1980) and A Tale Told (1981), later revised as Talley and Son (1985).

Wilson is a skilled craftsman with a keen ear for dialogue and eye for strong characterization. From the beginning, he has employed a lyrical realism particularly apt for the expression of rich and fluent interpersonal dynamics. Although using a familiar realistic framework, he has appropriated devices, particularly in his early work, to break the naturalistic texture. He has run scenes in counterpoint against each other or interrupted the action with various stylized devices: direct address, narrative, genre painting and music. Throughout his career, he has developed plot primarily by allowing it to evolve almost invisibly out of conversation and then leading it to an emotionally or physically violent climax (confrontation, death, separation). Despite his plays' punctuation by these moments of violence (sometimes aestheticized, as at the end of Balm in Gilead), his drama characteristically moves toward reconciliation or the acceptance of loss. Tirelessly, it encourages approbation both of the anomalous individual—in the belief that all individuals are wayward—and of middle-class culture—in the belief that it promises a future in which the individual can fully realize himself.

Despite the diversity of characters in Wilson's plays and his facility in portraying group dynamics, his drama characteristically opposes two approaches to the past, linking each to a character or group of characters. Balm in Gilead, for example, is drawn with a particularly large and colorful dramatis personae and is filled with a vigorous dramatic counterpoint among various social misfits: junkies, drug dealers, pimps, whores, hustlers and drag queens. Far more than simply a cross section of New York lowlife, however, the play juxtaposes those who know themselves and survive by celebrating their identity and their past against those who have never confronted their past—or present—and lose badly. Even the dramatic center of the play—Darlene's long monologue describing the failure of a relationship which she still does not understand—is focused on the past. In the autobiographical Lemon Sky, the conflict is centered on a young protagonist and his estranged father, who is never able to reach his son or deal with his own problems. The play's double time scheme, balancing action and recollection, 1957 and 1970, offers perspective and distance on the past, but by the end it seems that even the passage of time has not provided Alan with the power to work out and accept the events of that California summer thirteen years before.

Wilson's serious study of the well-made play in the late seventies and his subsequent use of the form hasn't significantly changed his approach to the past (the revelation of information about the past is, of course, as crucial to the well-made play as it is to his own early works). His study did, however, encourage him to use a more diagrammatic dramatic form and more concentrated interpersonal conflict. Talley's Folly, his most well-made play, is an unabashedly romantic presentation of Matt Friedman's wooing of Sally Talley, completed only after they overcome the differences between them and reveal pivotal facts about their pasts: Matt's victimage by anti-Semitism and Sally's infertility. Angels Fall is even more schematic, a play in the tradition of Bus Stop. An allegory of modern crisis both ecological and psychological, the play features a cross section of middle-class America taking refuge in a New Mexico mission during a minor nuclear accident. The characters' confrontations with themselves and each other build, through a series of revelations, to climaxes just as the emergency ends and, more mindfully than before, they go back into the world.

Among the many playwrights to have emerged from the Off-Off Broadway movement, Wilson has unquestionably been the most successful commercially. His work has been seen extensively on Broadway and has become a staple of regional theatre. Certainly his warmly realistic style and the tenderness of his characters are major factors in his success. His is a theatre without villains, one in which emotionality is highlighted against witty repartee. His work does not probe psychological horror and, as a result, is accessible to many who find much contemporary drama too emotionally wrenching. Wilson remains a skilled writer of romantic fictions, providing audiences with a modicum of self-examination and thereby facilitating their return to a world less poised and graceful than his own.


[Savran]: What were your early experiences in the theatre? And what prompted you to become a playwright?

[Wilson]: I thought I was going to be a painter. I had been writing stories from the time I was ten or twelve, but I drew and painted so much that I thought I would do that.

When I was nineteen, after one year at San Diego State, I hit Chicago and said, “I'm not going back to California.” I fell in love with big towns. So, planning to be an artist, I got a job with an advertising agency doing illustration. On lunch hours I wrote story after story and sent them out to magazines. I had rejection slips from the best magazines in the country. One day I came up with an idea and I thought, “That's not a story, that's a play.” So I started writing it as a play and within two pages I said, “Oh, I'm a playwright.” It was just as easy as that. I've told that story a hundred thousand times and I've written it as Zappy's story in Angels Fall about becoming a tennis player. Since that day I discovered I was a playwright, I have hardly drawn or painted at all. I've written very little else besides plays.

My interest in theatre began long before that. In high school I acted in all the plays. I had fallen in love with the theatre. Also in high school I saw some major plays—the local college did Death of a Salesman, a touring company did Brigadoon. But it never really occurred to me that plays were written. They were just handed down in those Samuel French books. So when I wrote a play in Chicago, I wrote it as three-fourths farce. I didn't have any idea what a farce was—I had never seen one—but I wrote one. It was quite stupid. And then I wrote a full-length play that was really very bad.

I decided I better find out what a play was so I went to one term of the downtown center of the University of Chicago, where I took a very basic adult education course. A play has conflict, write a scene of conflict. This is exposition, write a scene of exposition. We had great fun having actors from the Goodman Theatre come over and read the scenes. They would discuss them, we would discuss them, and our teacher Dr. Rhuby would discuss them. We ended by writing a one-act play. I decided if I was a playwright, I'd better go to New York.

When was that?

I got here on July 5th, 1962. I didn't remember that until years after I wrote Fifth of July. I was twenty-five.

That was just the beginning of Off-Off Broadway.

The Caffe Cino was down there. And Julie Bovasso had already done The Maids. I had written a revue while I was in Chicago and didn't have enough nerve to give it to Second City. So when I came here, I did it for the guy who ran Upstairs at the Downstairs. He offered me a job acting. But I turned it down because I knew the two actors I had come to New York with would kill me if I got an acting job. I was taking part-time jobs and writing. And I saw every play in New York. I hated everything. I had so looked forward to seeing plays. But it wasn't what I thought it was going to be. They weren't doing Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey into Night. They were doing Bye Bye, Birdie. The only play that was any good was Night of the Iguana and I had already seen that in Chicago on tour before it opened.

My first production here was down at the Caffe Cino—Home Free, a one-act play by a completely different person from the person who wrote those things in school in Chicago. I've never quite known what it was … maybe the atmosphere in New York. There was a huge leap. I was reading more. Maybe I had read something that said you're better off writing about your own experiences, or people you observe.

During those years, what playwrights were particularly important to you? You mentioned Miller, Williams.

I read them all, but only the Americans. I was in New York before I discovered any of the European writers. My source in Ozark and Springfield, Missouri was mainly Theater Arts magazine and those twenty-play anthologies. So I read the best twenty plays of Europe and liked them all. They were all by the same person as far as I was concerned. The first thing I saw at the Caffe Cino was Ionesco's The Lesson and it blew me completely away because I had never seen anything like that. I loved Ionesco and immediately looked up everything he had done.

I started working in the office at the Phoenix Theatre, where they did Next Time I'll Sing to You by James Saunders, which was important to me at the time. I hadn't realized that you could talk to the audience, and admit that you were on stage. With my art history background, it seemed as important to me as admitting that what you were working with was paint on canvas. So some of the early things I wrote had a lot of actors talking to the audience. It's very strange though, because years later I took the talking to the audience out. It never seemed to work. They always talked in character. Only in Serenading Louie did I drop the character and have them talk to the audience as actors. But I changed that in rehearsal because you were so convinced they were the characters that it didn't make any sense, you didn't know what in hell they were talking about.

What about Tennessee Williams?

I always loved Tennessee's work. One of the first plays I acted in was The Glass Menagerie and I thought it was just the greatest thing I had ever encountered. I was reading his short stories when I came to New York. That's about the time he wrote Sweet Bird of Youth, which has an absolutely sensational first act and an absolutely sensational third act … and the second act in between. I never responded to Inge at all. From the first play of his I read, I laughed out loud because I thought it was so incredibly stupid that a woman was telling her husband they had a daughter who was sixteen years old. And Miller I liked.

Strangely enough, I did not read Hedda Gabler for fifteen years and I missed Chekhov completely. I didn't read Chekhov until '68 or so—very, very late. I got the complete plays of Chekhov and was blown completely out of the water by him. I had never read anything like that in my life. That finally was what I thought a play should be.

I read somewhere in these formative years that Miller took the ordinary speech of the common man and transformed that subtly into a poetry for the stage. So I expected Swinburne, and I read Miller and said, “No he doesn't.” But I think that statement influenced me more than anything else, reading that and thinking, “That's a wonderful thing and should be done.” That's exactly what I had a talent for, which was probably why I responded to it. That idea and the fiction and the poetry I was reading—Swinburne and Gerard Manley Hopkins and André Gide and Dickens—were much stronger influences on me than any playwrights except James Saunders and Brendan Behan.

I was more influenced by Behan than anybody. Balm in Gilead is my attempt to do something as good as The Hostage, which I saw in Chicago. It had been the most exciting thing I had ever seen in theatre. I came to New York saying that theatre should be a three-ring circus. God knows I've changed a lot since then, but those early plays were an attempt to create that kind of life, from Rimers of Eldritch through Lemon Sky.

Tennessee said I was doing something quite different from what he was doing and I always agreed. I rarely have the violence that he has. Yes, in some of them, in Gilead [Balm in Gilead] and Rimers [Rimers of Eldritch.] But it's a very different kind of violence. He uses a very different subject. He used himself and I was using me, what I saw and what I had experienced several years before. But only Lemon Sky is autobiographical in the same way that his plays are autobiographical. “Where I am now as an artist” is what he always wrote about. I wouldn't have the chutzpa to do that. It's just not the way I think or what I ever thought theatre should be.

Your plays, especially the early ones, tend to have group protagonists rather than a single, overshadowing hero. That's also the difference between Chekhov and Miller.

Exactly. I think it has something to do with being essentially an only child, so I'm drawn more to the group. It's either the lonely child or cockroach syndrome.

I think probably the first of my plays influenced by Chekhov was Hot l Baltimore—I was writing it as quickly as I could for Circle Rep, not thinking about it, and when I got to the third act I thought “What in hell happens here?” because I hadn't mapped it out. I went to The Cherry Orchard and said, “Of course, we'll have some champagne and leave.” That's where Suzie leaving and throwing the party came from.

But you don't really have to read Chekhov to be influenced by him because you are influenced by people who have been influenced by him. It's in the air. I knew Chekhov because of takeoffs of Chekhov I had seen. I had just never bothered to read him myself. But I had no idea that you could do what he was doing on stage and that you could hide a plot as cleverly as he does. All of his plays are plotted, of course, but the plots are hidden so incredibly beautifully, in symbols and metaphors.

When you think back on your training, what is the most striking element to you?

I think a lot of us were trained like gardeners—by doing. At the Caffe Cino we had to do everything ourselves—sets, lights. We had to get the actors, we had to get replacements when the actors got jobs, we had to act ourselves when the replacements got jobs. It spoiled us incredibly because we thought we were always going to get to do everything. It was great fun and an enormous amount of work. Four and five one-act plays a year. But we had no idea that we were serving an apprenticeship.

After doing about six or eight one-act plays with two or three characters, because that was all you could fit on stage at Caffe Cino or La Mama, I finally wrote Balm in Gilead as something you could not possibly do at the Caffe Cino. I thought of it being published but never produced. I just sat in the coffee shop and took down every word I heard, then tried to make it into a design using a circle. A strong influence on that play was the Judson Poets' Theater, the dances and some of the musicals, Gertrude Stein's In Circles and What Happened—that's where I got the idea of lifting the stage and turning it halfway around, then turning it back at the end. We did that at La Mama. It's wonderfully effective. Much of the structure of Balm in Gilead was based on the fact that you saw the outside of the counter at the beginning. Then when they turned it around and repeated some of the scenes, you saw that the guy had a baseball bat in his hand when he was arguing, that's why he wasn't frightened. And the other guy probably knows he has a bat in his hand. It was very poignant when they started turning it back around again. So that play is constructed in circles. We used circular physical actions. And a lot of those shaggy-dog stories come back on themselves, so I think of them as circles. Darlene's long story is like that.

One night I got out of a subway in the pouring rain. I didn't have a quarter on me and this guy who later became Fick was trying to get some money or trying to get me to be his buddy—I couldn't really figure it out at the time. He ran alongside me like Ratso Rizzo during this incredible rainstorm at four in the morning, and I went into my shabby little hotel room and took a hot bath because I was freezing cold and got out and spent the rest of the night writing down everything he had said.

Several years later, when I took a step back and looked at what I had done, I began not quite to trust all this technique. I reread Rimers of Eldritch about three years after I wrote it and said, “God, I haven't touched the surface of Josh.” He has ten lines and most of them are to his sister, but from his actions we know he's a terribly complicated character. With this flashy technique and all these characters, I hadn't had time to develop him. I decided to concentrate on depth of character.

In which plays?

The Gingham Dog and Serenading Louie.Louie gets a little flashy but I had only four characters and I was using them to examine and question each other and go as far as I could. I was working on Serenading Louie in '67 and Lemon Sky came from nowhere and I said, “No, I don't want to work like that anymore,” but I had to finish it anyway because it was just all there. Then I went back to Serenading Louie. And then Circle Rep came into being and that changed everything again.


1969. I was in the middle of a massive writer's block at the time, which is no fun. I had had all these plays done on Broadway and it was clear that I was supposed to write The Great American Play. As soon as that was clear, I couldn't write a damn thing. It took about a year and a half, coming back to my friends and working in the office to take my mind off of result and put it back on process. Caffe Cino was gone and until I got comfortable at Circle Rep I really didn't have any reason to write.

I finally came up with Hot l Baltimore. I was trying to do something else but didn't trust my motive. The time got shorter and shorter because Circle Rep wanted a play for the following year. Marshall and I were painting flats and “The City of New Orleans” came on—I'm a train freak—and I said, “I'm going to write a play about this girl train freak who is a prostitute … I have to write that sometime.” Marshall said, “Why don't you write it now.” I started it the next day and it went nowhere for about three weeks, then suddenly caught fire and went very, very quickly.

What about the Talley plays?

Up to The Mound Builders, I felt that I never had a complete formal education. People like me read too much, see too much, over-compensate all over the place. I had never really studied writing and I didn't know what a well-made play was. I had come up with the idea of writing about my family in 1945, when my uncle came back from the war. I said, “It should be a 1945 play, one of those old-fashioned, well-made plays.” Then I said, “What in hell is an old-fashioned, well-made play?” All I knew is that it's based on Ibsen instead of Chekhov. So I reread Ibsen—and finally read Hedda Gabler—and realized, “He writes more like Chekhov than Chekhov.”

I made the mistake of getting that book by George Pierce Baker. I read it and said, “If that's what people are expecting in the theatre, no wonder no one likes my work.” So I tried to work on this 1945 play, but I couldn't do what he said and ended up writing Fifth of July, which straddled the fence between a well-made play and the way I had always written. I started out to write about these quite poor people but my brain wouldn't have any of it. In working on Fifth of July, I realized that there are about twenty plays in that house. But in working out the reason why Matt and Sally did not have children and so had brought up Shirley, and what that had meant to them, I had, of course, worked out the history of Matt and Sally and said, “That would be a very nice play too.” I was still aiming to write that 1945 play about my uncle, but by now it wasn't my uncle because the Talleys were very wealthy and ran the town. So they are based on the people my mother worked for.

Talley's Folly is more of a well-made play. It locks into place, you can actually hear it click. And you have that wonderful satisfaction of hearing the click and the incredible disappointment at the same time that it is that kind of play. It's very strange.

What do you mean by disappointment?

It's like “Oh, it's all been just a design. It's not really people at all, just this incredibly well-made piece of machinery.” You have that in Ibsen from time to time, but a completely different grand design in Chekhov. His is not all worked out on paper, but comes from natural impulses, which was always the way I had worked.

Determined to write that well-made play, I worked out A Tale Told, as it was then called. Now it's Talley and Son. Moments in the story drove me crazy. I like some of it a lot, but it was the most difficult thing I ever did. That and Angels Fall. I said, “Now I have had my well-made play experience and I'm curious what that's going to do to the way I used to write.” I found out that once you know how a play is supposed to be built, it's not easy to shake. And I had to write a play in about four months because I had said yes to a commission two years earlier from a festival down in Miami. They had called me up and said, “We have a yes from Tennessee Williams and a yes from Edward Albee, would you like to be the third one?” I said, “I'm supposed to say no?” It was great fun because they said they were giving Edward and Tennessee $15,000 and me $10,000. I said, “In a pig's eye.” And they said, “Oh, we'll give you the same.” So I had to do this and I didn't have a damn idea in my head.

I came back to New York from California in a panic and got an idea—bam!—in a bar. I saw a picture of New Mexico and I saw the entire play, all of the characters and the situation. The plays have often been a metaphor for where I think we're at, but usually I don't know that until I'm three-quarters of the way through them. This one I knew from the beginning, which is not as easy. If we're not people in a church that very few people go to, huddling there in a minor nuclear emergency, I don't know where in the fuck we are. It didn't cross the mind of a single critic. They can only find metaphors, those giant designs, in English plays like Plenty. We're making them continually and they never see it. I don't think they saw it in American Buffalo. What assholes.

Anyway, simultaneously with the idea I thought, “That is a locked-door play. And I hate a locked-door play.” That's Bus Stop and Outward Bound and I didn't want to write another genre play. But I ended up trying to write that locked-door play just as well as I possibly could. And it took everything out of me. It usually takes me a year to write a play and I wrote Angels Fall in four months. And then I rewrote it between Miami and New York. The last month I was working ten hours a day, seven days a week. With a secretary yet. It burned me out completely. I said I didn't want to have another original thought in my head for a year … and I didn't, for two.

Finally after that—I was helped by doing a translation of Three Sisters—I threw over the well-made play. The new one, Burn This, is back to Serenading Louie or Balm in Gilead, although it's only a four-character play. I wouldn't want to be without those six years of study, but it's important now to lose that. I'm happy to be back working in contemporary times and in the city with strong people to whom I don't quite know what's going to happen.

How do you write a play now?

For Burn This I had an idea about four years ago of a very interesting kind of coincidence and I had the two central characters. I was working on too many other things and didn't have a chance to write it. Four years later I was a little panicked because I wasn't working on anything. In three years I had written one one-act play and the translation of Three Sisters. It took me five times longer to translate it than it took Chekhov to write it, because he had the benefit of knowing Russian. I had to learn the goddam thing. So I was feeling real physical anxiety, getting as stiff as poured concrete. Usually I say, “Stop that,” and I stop. But I couldn't not feel this anxiety. So I said, “Describe that.” I started describing my physical symptoms and within half a page it turned into a character and I no longer felt any of that anxiety. So what I look for first is a character. And eventually someone says, “I can help you” or “Oh shut up,” and then you have two points of view.

I think Burn This is the best thing I've done. It's a love story. But it's not at all like any love story that I've ever written or seen. It's a love story in which people say “I don't want this” instead of “I love you.” It's very contemporary. After all the damn dance I've seen since Judson, and talking to dancers and having all these dancer friends—and of course Joe Cino was a dancer, too—I can finally write a dancer. And even at that I had to interview. This is modern dance and of course it isn't at all like classical ballet, where you start when you're nine and never see your mother again.

After I finally came up for air in this character I said, “What in the hell is that? Oh yeah, that's the idea from four years ago with that clever little gimmick.” So I worked it out with the gimmick. We had a first reading and I said, “Cut it.” So the thing I started with for the plot is gone and there is no plot, only character development—except there is a plot. It's just that I managed to hide it as well as I ever have. And it's convoluted in exactly the same way those early plays are. But this isn't circles, it's mirrors and landscapes. It's strange that the one thing I thought I had for sure, this nice little gimmick, was the first thing to go. The second thing to go was the very first page I had written, that had started me back to work and got me to find those four characters.

Do you rewrite a lot before the first rehearsal?

I did a lot more on Angels Fall and on Talley and Son than I did on this, which is a good sign. I also did very little on Hot l Baltimore.Burn This has taken forever because I wanted John Malkovich, and he couldn't do it for the longest time. I finished it in December and we got him for a reading in August. So I rewrote it some for the first reading we had here, and some for the reading in August, and some for California for December. But not a whole lot. We'll probably be paring it down during rehearsals—it's a little wordy—and clarifying and changing some things. I've rewritten the first scene about five times. It's only the first half of the first act that keeps changing and will keep changing. The rest stays exactly the same.

How long now have you worked with Marshall Mason?

'65, I think, was the first time we worked together.

What is your working relationship?

It's great. He'll say, “I'll take care of this and you take care of that.” It's like two heads instead of one. It's especially terrific on the large-cast plays. He'll say, “I'll never get that girl to do that.” So I say, “I'll talk to her, if you can get him to do what he's supposed to do.” He has seen a play at least fifteen times over the year I've been working on it. We've seen readings of it. He has read scenes. I've read scenes to him. He knows more or less what the play is, so we both know exactly what we want. And then in casting we find ourselves very, very close every time. And since we both know what we want, we trust either to get it. And so if I'm talking to someone over in the corner, he knows I'm not telling them something that is going to undermine his purpose. He says, “Good, that's taken care of.” I don't do that too much, but it gives him maybe a quarter more time than he would normally have.

Do you normally go to all of the rehearsals?

All except for the first two or three when they're improvising. They need to do that for scenes like “the first time she met Burt.” And that's very nice because if they improvise it, they'll always have that experience in their minds when they're playing, to fall back on. I would rather die than see them improvise. I always think it's better than the scene I wrote. But when they start saying my words, I'm there. Because they may need me. Or I may need them.

Do you do much rewriting in rehearsal?

Clarification. If someone says something for the fourth time and isn't making sense out of it, I'll say, “Do you know what that means?” He'll say no. I'll ask, “Who knows what that means?” And the other three people will say what they think it means and if they're right, the first person will say, “Oh, of course, what an asshole I am.” If no one quite knows I say, “That means this, in other words.” And they all go, “Why didn't you say that?” Then I usually go back to the typewriter to clarify because I don't think there's a point in being misunderstood. I hate not understanding something … unless it's the sort of play you're not supposed to understand, which is a whole different thing. But I'm not writing Last Year at Marienbad and neither is anyone else I know.

And do you rewrite often after a first production?

I wish I didn't, but I do. I keep writing. The trade edition of Fifth of July is quite different from the last rewrite of the play, published by Dramatists Play Service. I have a horror of anyone doing the hardback version instead of the actors' version.

What production are you particularly happy with?

There are about six or seven. We've done some very good work. We did Hot l Baltimore here and then we did it in California, and I came back from California thinking I had seen the ultimate production. But the production here was forty times better and I didn't know it until we came back to it. I was hyperventilating. I completely forgot that I had written it. I just had not seen anything like that on the American stage before. Angels Fall … I told you of the reservations I have with that kind of play, but the production was stunning. You wanted to fuck the lights. I am still incredibly pleased with the costumes, with Nancy Snyder walking across the stage leading with her pelvis in that dress that kept flipping back and forth around her waist. Peeling that green apple, the only green on the set.

I thought Malkovich's production of Balm in Gilead was absolutely stunning. Our first production of Balm in Gilead was stunning, too, and very much like Malkovich's. We used music that was contemporary then. We didn't use Bruce Springsteen because Bruce Springsteen didn't exist then … he probably wasn't even born. Both Lemon Skys have been terrific. Serenading Louie at Second Stage was the most difficult rehearsal period I ever went through because I didn't want to go back to that place again. I rewrote a couple of scenes and I think I improved them but I couldn't really tell. It's a pain in the ass to be questioned as closely as those incredibly serious actors questioned me.

Who directed?

John Tillinger. It looked like shit all during rehearsals but the first preview was pretty damn good and the second preview was pretty damn amazing and after that it was just astonishing. But that play has always been difficult for me. I hyperventilate for all the wrong reasons. I like the play, but I don't like my experience of the play.

Do you read the critics?

Oh yeah. It's a business so you want to know if you're going to run. Also, Marshall and I are better at finding quotes in a review than any of the people who are paid to do it. We're shameless at it because we really don't take it that seriously. We don't let the actors read them because it can fuck up their performance. The critics never say anything enlightening about the writing—unless of course they like it in which case it's wonderful. I read reviews of productions I haven't even seen. Pittsburgh Public Theater sent me the reviews of Serenading Louie and I had great fun reading those. But I haven't taken any advice from any of them.

What direction do you see the American theatre going in now? It seems that both Broadway and Off Broadway are changing.

Have they? How?

Broadway is no longer a forum for serious drama, with a few exceptions.

Name one.

Glengarry Glen Ross.

And Hurlyburly. That's about it. Even Benefactors didn't do it for me. Glengarry, 'night, Mother and Hurlyburly. Especially Hurlyburly. What do you know? A good play on Broadway. Good Lord, it's enough to put you in a time warp. As I said, when I got here, I hated everything on Broadway. I don't think there have been more than two good plays on Broadway since '62. Good God, that's twenty-four years! So many things are bombed before anyone has a chance to see them. And something else isn't very good but gets praised. And something else squeaks through for a short while. I don't suppose anyone makes any money. Of the plays I've had done on Broadway, only Talley's Folly returned its investment. Fifth of July ran fourteen months and ended up costing money. Angels Fall is starting to return some money from around the country, but it was a total wash. So as far as the business goes, that's lousy. Off Broadway? I have difficulty finding Off Broadway right now.

Well, the Public for instance.

I can get only so interested in Czechoslovakian theatre. There are some … they did an Innaurato last year that was astonishing. And the Kramer play. Tracers was wonderful and good to see.

In your letter to me you mentioned Irene Fornes's work.

She's unlike anyone else, which is amazing to see. And she's like me in that one play is not much like the next, as opposed to say Chekhov or Sam Shepard, who seem to be writing the same play over and over again. So I'm crazy about her work.

I have a lot of energy but I am not by nature positive. But I am positive about the theatre. I can't think of a time that has had so many theatre artists of the quality that we have working right now. There just isn't another period that has Irene Fornes and David Rabe and David Mamet and Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson and about ten others. Now three-fourths of them aren't getting the recognition they deserve. And that none of their plays are running is really beside the point. We will go down as a Golden Age—I sound like a fucking Chekhov—in American theatre. Not one of those writers is writing like any other. We're all working our own turf, our own brain, our own dream, our own vision. And I think that is very, very exciting.

We're building a strong theatre literature that is being done across the country—it's not being done in New York except for about two weeks or sometimes all of three or four months—but it's being done in every regional theatre, all the work that goes from being a failure with the New York critics to being extremely important to everyone throughout the country. Serenading Louie ran twice as long in a 700-seat theatre in Pittsburgh as it did in a 70-seat theatre in New York. So I don't feel particularly good about New York theatre—the finances are totally fucked. But I feel very good about theatre across the country. After all, that's what we're talking about. We can't be bothered about New York theatre.

What are your plans for the future?

I would hope to write a decent play. I've been getting involved with these damn actors who can't move with a play for an extended life. It happens time and again. I'd like to stop doing that, write for unknowns. The next play will be for unknown actors or else I'm going to sign them to a two-year contract. When you work on something very hard and do it correctly with no compromises, you want it to be seen that way by as many people as possible. Only in one case, with Richard Thomas coming into Fifth of July and Joe Bottom who followed him, have I had a production with replacements as good or better than the original. Both guys were not only dynamite, they fit into the ensemble. But that almost never happens when you're doing an ensemble piece.

Do you have a favorite among your plays?

I don't really. It depends on my mood. Until I see it on its feet in front of an audience, I'll like Burn This the best. I might even like Hot l Baltimore if I read it. I've not read it since it closed Off Broadway, twelve years ago or whatever, so I don't know what that play is anymore. But really, whichever one I'm going to do next is my favorite.

Further Reading

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Barnett, Gene A. “Recreating the Magic: An Interview with Lanford Wilson.” Ball State University Forum 25 (spring 1984): 57-74.

Focuses on Wilson's writing style and creative process.

———. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 170 p.

Provides extensive discussion of Wilson's life and works.

Brustein, Robert. “Post-Naturalist Triumph.” New Republic, no. 3642 (5 November 1984): 27-9.

Lauds a revival of Balm in Gilead, directed by John Malkovich, as “a stylistic triumph.”

Cooperman, Robert. “The Talley Plays and the Evolution of the American Family.” In Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 65-84. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Describes Wilson's Talley trilogy as “a history of family life in modern America.”

Gussow, Mel. “Three Lanford Wilson Plays Given Uptown.” New York Times (22 May 1972): 43.

Provides discussion of The Great Nebula in Orion, Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye, and The Family Continues.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “Two American Plays.” New Republic 172, no. 9 (1 March 1975): 22, 33.

Maintains that despite its faults, The Mound Builders is well-grounded in Wilson's Midwestern heritage.

Oliver, Edith. Review of The Rimers of Eldritch, by Lanford Wilson. New Yorker (4 March 1967): 132-33.

Provides a positive assessment of The Rimers of Eldritch.

———. “At the Boathouse.” New Yorker (14 May 1979): 84-5.

Deems Talley's Folly engaging, but lacking in content.

Robertson, C. Warren. “Lanford Wilson (13 April 1937-).” In American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 528-39. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Provides an analysis of Wilson's critical reputation, production history, and literary influences.

Ryzuk, Mary S. The Circle Repertory Company: The First Fifteen Years. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989, 312 p.

Book-length study on the theater company that Wilson founded.

Weales, Gerald. “American Theater Watch, 1979-1980.” Georgia Review 34, no. 3 (1980): 497-508.

Considers Wilson a conventional dramatist and offers comments on Talley's Folly.

Wilson, Lanford, and Scot Haller. “The Dramatic Rise of Lanford Wilson.” Saturday Review (August 1981): 26-9.

Interview in which Wilson discusses his upbringing and the events leading to the founding of the Circle Repertory Theater.

Additional coverage of Wilson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 45, 96; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 14, 36; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7; DISCovering Authors Modules:Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 19; Drama for Students, Vols. 4, 9, 12, 16; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; and Twayne's United States Authors.

Mark Busby (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Busby, Mark. “Lanford Wilson.” In Lanford Wilson, edited by Wayne Chatterton and James H. Maguire, pp. 5-52. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.

[In the following essay, Busby discusses Wilson's Midwestern roots as inspiration for his plays.]

Vincent, the main character in Lanford Wilson's first Broadway play, The Gingham Dog, explains that he left his small Kentucky town for New York because he was “sick of small people—ambitions—hopes—small hopelessness,” and he thought that New Yorkers “could comprehend something outside themselves, respond.” It was perhaps a similar attraction that brought Lanford Wilson from a small farm near Ozark, Missouri, to the bright lights of the Great White Way, but just as Vincent eventually discovers, Wilson learned that continuing connections with one's region remain. He also knows that coming home is not always wrapped in comfortable nostalgia. Nonetheless, some of Lanford Wilson's greatest successes as a playwright have come when he husbanded his Midwestern roots as the subjects for his plays.

Wilson was born to Ralph Eugene and Violette Careybelle (Tate) Wilson on 13 April 1937 in Lebanon, Missouri, a small town in south central Missouri at the edge of the Mark Twain National Forest. When he was five, his parents divorced, and he and his mother moved to Springfield, where she got a job in a garment factory. When Lanford was fourteen, his mother married a dairy inspector with two daughters, and the family moved to a farm near Ozark, a small town of about 1,500 in south central Missouri.

Wilson first became attracted to theater while watching a touring company presentation of Brigadoon: “After that town came back to life on stage, movies didn't stand a chance.” A short time later he saw a production of Death of a Salesman at Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield, and his interest in theater increased. At Ozark High School, where he also ran track, Wilson played Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, his introduction to Tennessee Williams, whose writing significantly influenced Wilson's.

In 1955-56 Wilson attended Southwest Missouri State where he studied art history. The experience was a lasting one, for it drew Wilson to the past:

My subject in school was art history. And through that I learned what we have done, what our heritage was, and what we are doing to it. It's like America is trying to reverse the myth of Jupiter; instead of the old man eating his children, the children are eating their grandparents.

(Haller 26)

Generational conflicts and concern with the past are two themes that often appear in Wilson's plays.

Wilson's first-hand experience with parental conflict resulted after he headed west to stay with his father, step-mother, and two half-brothers in California in 1956. It was an important time that became the basis for Wilson's autobiographical play, Lemon Sky. Although he worked briefly as a riveter at an aircraft plant with his father, Wilson explains what happened:

I went to live with my dad in San Diego for about a year. We didn't get along at all. He wanted me to come and work in a factory where he worked, but I just wasn't enthralled with the aircraft industry, any more than he was enthralled with the idea of my becoming a writer.

(Flatley 1)

Even though his interests were divided between writing and art, Wilson took a writing course at San Diego State University with some friends and began writing short stories. However, he soon tired of the stress of living with his father and returned to the Midwest.

Wilson spent the next five years living and working in Chicago and for a time continued writing short stories and painting. He finally realized “that I wasn't the painter I thought I was” and turned to writing plays after he found writing dialogue appealing:

On my lunchtime I was writing stories. I tried dialogue, and before I'd gotten through the first page I knew I was a playwright. Probably I just couldn't get down what I say into a painting. It was too diverse, like four images at once. It was mud. I couldn't get that quadruple image in a painting, but it was very easy in a play.

(Dace 3)

His formal training in playwriting was brief: “So I went to the University of Chicago adult education program, and in ten nights I learned about exposition and character development and all those things plays are made of. That was my playwriting education” (Shewey 18).

His experiences in Chicago, however, were also part of his education. The lesson came when he learned that several historic buildings were being demolished:

I got to Chicago just as they were tearing down every Frank Lloyd Wright building they could get their hands on. There would be a dozen ugly buildings in a row, and they would tear down the brilliant Frank Lloyd Wright building for a parking lot.

(Haller 28)

In 1962 Wilson was armed with rejections for his short stories, and he had already concluded that he was no painter. Because his creativity had become directed toward writing plays, he decided to move to New York, thinking originally that Broadway was his goal. His initial experience was disheartening: “I came to New York with all that stardust in my eyes and saw every play on Broadway and hated everything” (Baker 41).

This disappointment was soon overcome after a chance meeting with Joe Cino, who encouraged young artists by producing plays at his Caffe Cino. On the night that Wilson stopped in, Cino was presenting Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson, and Wilson was overwhelmed: “I was bowled over by The Lesson. It was the first theatrical experience I had had in New York, and I had seen everything” (Baker 40). The exuberance of Off-Off-Broadway's experimental theater changed Wilson forever; before that experience Wilson had not known that “theater could be dangerous and funny in that way at the same time.”

Wilson's first plays were written for the unusual theater at Caffe Cino, “[f]or that little confined space. It's why they're all so claustrophobic.” Beyond influencing Wilson's concept of theatrical space, Caffe Cino inspired a strong sense of working with a company, a feeling he has regularly sought to maintain: “I think that everything that I have done since then has been a way to recreate that environment for myself—that family of workers.”

This strong sense of work and belief in community were to become central to Wilson's writing. To support himself during this Off-Off-Broadway apprenticeship, Wilson worked odd jobs—furniture store clerk, waiter at a Cobbs Corner restaurant, and reservations clerk at the Hotel Americana. He told Don Shewey in Rolling Stone that he even resorted to hustling for a short time.

His diverse experiences helped Wilson achieve empathy with the offbeat characters who populate his early plays. In Wilson's seven-phase career, his Off-Off-Broadway plays for Joe Cino mark the first phase (1963-65), which includes most of the short, experimental plays done for Caffe Cino: The Madness of Lady Bright,Home Free,Ludlow Fair,Days Ahead, and two 1965 plays that are important to this study—This Is the Rill Speaking, set in an unidentified Midwestern town, and The Sand Castle, a California play.

The second phase (1965-72) includes Wilson's first full-length plays, which were written for another Off-Off-Broadway stage, Ellen Stewart's Cafe La Mama: Balm in Gilead (1965), an urban play about New York's detritus, and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966), his first full-length Midwestern play. It won the 1966-67 Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award for contribution to Off-Broadway theater. Also included in this phase is The Gingham Dog (1968), which concerns the breakup of an interracial couple. Originally presented in Washington, D.C., this play marked Wilson's Broadway debut. Other full-length plays during this phase are Lemon Sky (1968), about Wilson's abortive reconciliation with his father in San Diego, and Serenading Louie (1970), Wilson's urban tragedy about the collapse of two marriages.

These last three plays opened to mixed reviews and caused the normally prolific Wilson to suffer his first writer's block. The lack of the theater family that was so important to his work at Caffe Cino also contributed to his difficulties. Therefore, in 1969 when Marshall Mason, Rob Thirkield, and Tanya Berezin began to discuss forming a company, Wilson readily joined them to establish the Circle Theatre Company, later the Circle Repertory Company.

The co-founding of the Circle Rep eventually led to the third phase of Wilson's career (1972-76), his first plays written for the Company. With the reestablished family feeling, Wilson began to write his most significant works, and he has been one of the key elements in the success of the Circle Repertory Company, where he has been the playwright-in-residence since the theater began. Mason, who until 1986 was the managing director of the Circle Rep, has directed most of Wilson's plays in one of the more creative collaborations in recent American theater. The combination of Mason's directing the plays Wilson writes has provided a way for a number of young actors to get started, as well. Among the former members of the Circle Rep who initially received recognition for their work in Wilson's plays are Judd Hirsch, Jeff Daniels, and William Hurt.

Wilson's first plays for the Company were a one-act, The Great Nebula in Orion, and an improvisational “round,” The Family Continues, both in 1972. The first major success there was The Hot l Baltimore, written with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972 for a February 1973 premiere. Written especially for the Circle Repertory Company, the play was Wilson's first major success, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle and Obie awards for best play of the 1972-73 season. It was also instrumental in Wilson's receiving the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for most promising young playwright and a $3,000 award from the American Academy of Letters. (During the 1975 television season a short-lived sitcom based on Hot l [Hot l Baltimore] made $25,000 for Wilson.)

The other plays during this period are The Mound Builders (1976), a full-length play that began leading Wilson back to his Midwestern background, and Brontosaurus (1977), a one-act play about a Manhattan antique dealer. Both The Hot l Baltimore and The Mound Builders demonstrate an ambivalence toward the past and are important forerunners to the fourth and perhaps major phase in Wilson's career (1977-81): his plays about the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri.

The first play written, 5th of July, is actually the last play chronologically, reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper's pattern in the Leatherstocking series of moving from old age to youth. The play opened in April 1978 at the Circle Rep and later moved to Broadway and received a nomination for a Tony Award. The second play in the series, Talley's Folly, opened in 1979 and received the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for 1980. The third play in the series has gone through several titles—from War in Lebanon (1980) to A Tale Told (1981) to Talley & Son (1985). Wilson once announced plans to write two more plays in an eventual five-play cycle about the Talleys, but though he described the subjects of the next two plays (one to be about Whistler Talley, the other about the Talleys shortly after the Civil War), they remain unwritten. Although he still believes he may return to the Talleys, he has no immediate plans to continue the cycle (telephone interview 3 Nov. 1986).

The next phase in Wilson's career (1981-82) is marked by his moving away from the Talleys, first by returning to a California setting for a one-act play, Thymus Vulgaris (1981), followed in 1982 by Angels Fall, a full-length play set in a New Mexico mission. Not only do these two plays lead away from the Talleys, but the latter marks a departure for Wilson and establishes the fifth phase of his career, as he turned away from the Midwestern, California, and Eastern, urban settings to write about a specific area in which he had not lived.

From 1983 to 1985 Wilson experienced another brief creative slump, for instead of completing the Talley cycle, he returned to his earlier plays and revised and revived several of his older full-length plays: Balm in Gilead,Serenading Louie,The Gingham Dog,Lemon Sky, and Talley & Son. Most of these revivals were staged by the Circle Repertory Company, and Wilson updated the scripts to reflect the times. In some cases the plays were significantly revised, particularly the renamed Talley & Son. These revisions mark the sixth phase of Wilson's writing career and suggest that Lanford Wilson approached age fifty in another period of creative dormancy.

During this time he also completed a translation of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, commissioned for the Hartford Stage Company, and worked on a screenplay for Talley's Folly, written for Judd Hirsch, who starred in the role at the Circle Rep and on Broadway. Wilson describes writing the screenplay as being difficult, exciting, and “completely different” from writing for the stage because the film dramatizes many of the actions that are explained by the characters in the play.

In a curious way, working on revisions of his older plays helped Wilson regain creativity. As he watched the revival of Balm in Gilead, he was pleased with the energy of the script, and he decided that he wished to restore some of that vitality to his work. Thus, when he started writing a new script, he wanted to remind himself that each page should be intense:

I always have the feeling that I'm not pushing myself far enough. And so at the top of all the pages I was writing “Burn This,” just to remind myself that whatever was on that page should be a little more daring than what I had been doing. Just don't show this to anyone, like you would put at the bottom of a note.

As he continued working on the play and having members of the Circle Rep Company read the scenes that he had written, the actors convinced Wilson to use the words for the title. The fire imagery is appropriate, too, since the new play, Burn This, which opened in the spring of 1987 with John Malkovich, is an urban love story filled with tension. The production of Burn This, besides returning to an urban setting for Wilson, was the first time for Marshall Mason to direct a play at the Circle Repertory Theater since he resigned as managing director.

Through this varied career—from brief one-acts at Caffe Cino to full-length, award-winning plays on Broadway—Lanford Wilson has established himself as one of the major figures in contemporary American theater. Besides the Pulitzer Prize, he has received the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and three Tony nominations. Lance, as his friends call him, now lives alone in Sag Harbor, New York, in a three-story, five-bedroom, six-fireplace house built in 1845. Tending his garden and restoring the house are two favorite pastimes, as life and work coalesce for the farmboy-become-playwright who often writes about tilling the Midwestern soil and preserving the past.

Lanford Wilson's imagination has been shaped by his Midwestern heritage. One interesting way he connects with other Western and Midwestern writers is in his use of a geographical continuum from the East through the Midwest to the West, a structure that has often given shape to American literature. Although Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis has been widely attacked by historians over the years, the frontier—what Turner called the “meeting point between savagery and civilization”—continues to be important to American writers as they draw from frontier imagery.

Many contemporary American writers express a deep ambivalence toward the frontier. On the one hand, they nod longingly toward some American frontier values (independence, endurance, initiative, strength, courage) and recognize positive traits associated with the pastoral or primitivist frontier. On the other hand, they acknowledge the limitations that a nostalgic frontier emphasis produces, and they recognize the problems spawned by playing what Larry McMurtry calls “symbolic frontiersman.”

For many older Midwestern and Western writers, civilization was generally associated with the East, the past, and with Europe—all of which were withering and moribund, especially the “dead hand” of the past. Civilization, then, was linked with society—its institutions, its laws, its demands for compromise and restriction, its cultural refinement and emphasis on manners, its industrial development, and its class distinctions.

The wilderness that civilization confronted represented many opposing ideas. Rather than the restrictive demands of society, the wilderness offered the possibility of individual freedom, where the single individual could test his or her sense of self against nature without the demand for social responsibility and the compromise of being part of a community. Cultural refinement and emphasis on manners gave way to pragmatic empiricism. Rather than industrialism, agrarianism was the major force. Class distinctions disappeared. In the wilderness breathed the all-enfolding spirit, a deity worshipped alike by Indians, Transcendentalists, and Naturalists.

For Wilson a dichotomy between the civilized but destructive East and the free but anarchic West appears in his plays set in various locations. During his varied career, Wilson has written California plays; many plays with Midwestern or rural settings; and a recent play with a New Mexico setting. A number of his Eastern, urban plays (The Gingham Dog,Balm in Gilead,Brontosaurus,Serenading Louie,The Madness of Lady Bright,Burn This) and experimental plays with no discernible settings (The Family Continues,Days Ahead, and others) fall outside the scope of this study. Yet, throughout many of these diverse plays, Wilson builds on the recognizable split between East and West.

Although the West, particularly California, is presented as the place where dreams lead and the individual can pursue all desires, it lacks a preserving sense of order and a necessary awareness of the past. The Midwest often suffers from the problems of both the East and the West. It can provide a withering emphasis on order, especially a puritanical repressiveness of the individual, without the cultural possibilities of the urban East. But the industrialism of the East denies the Midwest's and the West's connections to the beauty of the natural world.

Wilson, therefore, made uneasy by the unfettered world's lack of shape and restriction and its emphasis on the isolated individual, looks to the border, the frontier between savagery and civilization, between shapelessness and restriction, as the place where the human being can flourish. He longs for a border, a newly regenerated Midwest severed from its deadening problems, unified by a community (or more likely a family), sustained by the tolerance, diversity, and cultural awareness of the East—without its attendant destructiveness—and the vitality of the West—without its instability and ahistoricism.

Many of Wilson's plays, therefore, endorse what Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden describes as the pastoral rather than the primitivist ideal. The primitivist ideal, often celebrated by Western writers, is as far from the restrictions of society as possible—deep in the territory ahead. But the pastoralist “seeks a resolution of the conflict between the opposed worlds of nature and art” (22). The savagery and wildness of the open landscape can be improved through human work and art or artifice. The pastoral ideal, thus, stresses the need for human community more than the primitivist, which emphasizes the unfettered individual.

Ultimately, Wilson's desire for a pastoral ideal shaped by human effort connects him with other Midwestern writers. When Midwesterner F. Scott Fitzgerald late in life wrote his daughter Scottie that “my generation of radicals and breakers-down never found anything to take the place of the old virtues of work and courage and the old graces of courtesy and politeness,” he expressed sentiments that some of Midwesterner Wilson's plays endorse, as well.

Of Wilson's themes affected by his Midwestern past Mel Gussow has noted:

His characters reach back to the past not for nostalgia but for anchors, for a lineage with those who have preceded them, for sustaining values. In his art, there is a quest for durability, for attachment. Personal relationships are his religion—if only people would make contact. Even when his characters are immersed in an urban environment, they retain an incorruptible pioneer spirit.


Several other primary themes besides this strong emphasis on the importance of place, the past, work, and family connect Wilson with other Midwestern and Western writers: an ambivalence toward his own rural background and the values associated with small-town American life; a related ambivalence toward Western values such as machismo and independence; a recurring interest in Indian lore; the use of unrealistic techniques or magical realism; a strong belief in the difficulty in but need for human communication; an abiding sense of humor.

In the introduction to The Gingham Dog published in 1970, in a passage tinged with the anger of the sixties, Wilson emphasized some of his continuing concerns:

We're raping our land. Ignoring (deeply, truly) the Indians, the black man, and each other. … Many people believe they are better than other people, innately; deserve to keep their wealth, or equal someone's possessions regardless of what it costs—what it costs them; their children; and the land. I mean the earth. Dirt. The very soil is dying.


The themes appear throughout Wilson's varied career, and some other generalizations are possible, as well. The typical Wilson play can perhaps be described as poetic naturalism: it revolves around characters whose language and memory cause them conflict with the reality of their circumstances. Many of his plays are crossroads drama because of Wilson's fondness for concentrating on moments when characters find themselves at significant points in their lives. Often the play's fulcrum is a past betrayal that must be confronted. Usually Wilson leaves the characters before the circumstances are fully resolved, but there is often the desire for a future that can recapture past values and move beyond present difficulties. Through the characters' recognition of human values and through Wilson's use of evocative language, the audience is usually left sensing the possibility of achievement, particularly in the more recent plays.

Any discussion of Wilson's plays can easily be organized around the settings he uses: California, the Midwest, New Mexico, and the East. Two early California plays are related: a one-act play called The Sand Castle (1965) and the autobiographical, full-length play Lemon Sky (1968). Both plays use narrators who address the audience directly, and both present a similar image of the chaos of California life.

In The Sand Castle the shifting sands of the title refer to the lack of stability of the California family on whom the play centers. The particular problem grows out of a mother's betrayal by her daughter. Irene, the mother, discovers that her daughter, Joan, has seduced Irene's boyfriend, Clint.

Clint demonstrates Wilson's ambivalent use of a Western figure. On the one hand, he seemingly provides a criticism of stereotyped Western machismo. Irene, who is an intelligent woman, a published poet, recognizes the irony in her attraction to Clint:

Well, you're Marlboro Country and the Camel Man and Randolph Scott, it's just ridiculous. All the things that we're supposed to believe are masculine and red-blooded in the pulp fiction sense. Your dreadful speech and your laughable—almost self-conscious clumsiness and your honest sincerity and middle-class, proletarian sensibility and even your total lack of good looks.


Yet Clint offers Irene an alternative to the flux of life on the California shore. He wants to marry her so they can move inland to Fresno or spend the weekends in the mountains. But Irene has been seduced by the California life (she no longer writes), and she refuses Clint's offer.

This seeming archetypal Westerner cannot resist Joan's seduction and therefore demonstrates that Western masculine values are also susceptible to instability just as is the sandstone base for Sunset Cliffs, which crumble during the play. Thus, Clint is an ambivalent figure, one who represents many of the positive values in Wilson's world, but also one who lacks the capacity to resist the lure of California's open lifestyle.

Wilson's next California play, Lemon Sky, was apparently influenced by Tennessee Williams' approach in The Glass Menagerie, for it also uses a narrator who looks back upon his problematic relationship with a parent. The father, Douglas, had abandoned the son, Alan, as a child and had gone west where he married and started a new family. As the play begins, Alan is twenty-nine, looking back to age seventeen when he went to San Diego to live with his father.

The play presents alternating attitudes about California. On the one hand, its mythic status as the land of the gold rush and the place where dreams are made flesh is appealing to young Alan, as he hopes to find what he calls the “promised land” of California and the loving father about whom he had dreamt. What he finds instead is first a dismal bus ride through the southern California desert and then an equally arid relationship with Doug. Of Californians, Alan concludes that they're “mad. They are. The shoes they wear, when they wear shoes; the clothes they wear, when they wear clothes. This place is impossible.” California movies are unrealistic, he says, because the filmmakers are “working in the dark.”

In fact, the title refers to the unreal color of southern California, a land of “continual sunshine” where “the color green does not occur … naturally.” Rather, Alan remarks, “Southern California is in the colors of perpetually early autumn: umber, amber, olive, sienna, ocher, orange; acres and acres of mustard and sage” (70).

Alan's relationship with Doug proves to be as deflating as his finding that California is not the place of his dreams. Doug is not the father Alan has always wanted. Instead he is a man driven by stereotyped definitions of manhood. In fact, Doug's life has been motivated by his desire to be a “real man,” one who recognizes his worth by making as many female conquests as possible. He wishes to apply the same standard to Alan, and when Alan fails to pursue women vigorously, Doug reacts vehemently.

Although Lemon Sky is an early Wilson play, it demonstrates several recognizable Wilson traits: it concerns a significant time in a character's life, one when a character's past betrayal is challenged; it questions traditional Western values of machismo; it emphasizes the need for communication; it challenges some standard Western myths; it demonstrates several of Wilson's favorite stylistic devices—particularly direct audience address, overlapping dialogue, and indirect chronology; and it presents California negatively because of its lack of rootedness and order.

Despite its importance in Wilson's development, Lemon Sky got mixed reviews when it was first staged. T. E. Kalem in Time dismissed it as a worn-out idea, “one of those plays about a sensitive adolescent living in a troubled family under the wrathful eye of a callous and cruel parent (usually the father) who subsequently becomes a sensitive young playwright who writes such plays as Lemon Sky.” And John Simon, in his inimitable way, reacted similarly, labeling the play “Piranian—a play that wants to be Pirandellian, but halfheartedly stops halfway.” When the play was revived in December 1985 with Jeff Daniels playing the lead (a young Christopher Walken had the original role with Charles Durning as the father), it received much more positive reviews than it had originally. Wilson had polished the dialogue, but perhaps its better reception can be attributed to the fact that both Wilson and Jeff Daniels had achieved acclaim by 1985.

In 1981 Wilson returned to the California setting with a slight one-act play titled Thymus Vulgaris. Evelyn, a thirty-five-year-old former Las Vegas prostitute, arrives at her mother's trailer near Palmdale, California, to tell her that she is to be married to “Solly—Maidblest—Soretti,” the grapefruit king of forty-two states. Evelyn met Solly at the “club,” and because she was the only girl to help him overcome his “difficulty,” he asked her to marry him. When Evelyn comes to get her mother Ruby to come to the wedding, she finds the trailer overgrown with an herb planted by one of Ruby's last lovers. The plant, thymus vulgaris, has crowded everything else out.

Again, Wilson presents the California setting negatively. Both Evelyn and Ruby, as the title suggests, are common and vulgar. Both only dimly perceive any potential for their lives. Their dialogue is a tissue of corrupted clichés (“Spit while the iron's hot”). Yet, like the skunks in Robert Lowell's poem, “Skunk Hour,” there is something vital about these characters that suggests that they, like Lowell's skunks and the weed that gives the play its title, will endure. In their rootlessness and searching for stability, they connect with other Wilson characters, and he presents them with condescending affection.

These California plays, therefore, indicate Wilson's use of the East/West dichotomy. California's West is attractive and beckoning, but its world lacks the rootedness of work and family. Yet, the Midwest, particularly in Wilson's early Midwestern plays, does not seem to be a place where the values in which Wilson believes can flourish.

Both This Is the Rill Speaking (1965) and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966) use various unidentified, rural Midwestern settings. They especially demonstrate the younger Wilson's satirical attitude toward the stifling attitudes of small-town life.

Wilson returned to his Midwestern background in This Is the Rill Speaking after he realized that he should write about what he knew best, explaining to Rolling Stone that the “New York sound was so overwhelming” that he “couldn't write fast enough. After awhile I thought, here I am, this hillbilly person writing all these New York plays. What am I doing? The sound of Missouri—I know that better than I know anything.”

Wilson describes the play as “a play for voices with people seated in chairs.” This short, early play—first produced on 20 July 1965 at Caffe Cino—presents in microcosm many of Wilson's continuing concerns, especially his abiding ambivalence toward rural Midwestern life. On the one hand, these voices reveal people who are small-minded, hypocritical, gossip-ridden, sexually repressed, blind to the simple beauty of their world, and confined to deadening routines where they intrude judgmentally on the lives of others or dream of unrealizable futures.

On the other hand, the simple beauty of that world exists, waiting for the artist to give it voice. Willy, the budding artist figure in the play, wants to write “all about here. Only it'd be about the Nature around us all the time and that we never notice.” The rill, from the song “My Country, 'Tis of Thee” (“I love thy rocks and rills”), will speak in Willy's writing and say: “They've been tearing down that old bridge down by the fork there.” Thus, the inhabitants, numbed to beauty by routine, allow their connections to a past that offers meaning—the railroad bridge—to be destroyed.

Stylistically, This Is the Rill Speaking also demonstrates some of the experimental techniques Wilson has continued to use: overlapping dialogue, mood lighting, minimal set, and simultaneous action.

The Rimers of Eldritch extends these techniques and themes into a full-length play. An unsentimental Our Town,The Rimers of Eldritch attacks the small-mindedness of small-town Midwestern life. The members of the church in this community are as hypocritical and pinched-faced as the Ladies of the Law and Order League ever thought about being in John Ford's Stagecoach. Like Preston Jones' plays, Rimers [The Rimers of Eldritch] centers on a dying town. One of the central images used to portray the town's death is a traditional Western one: the vision of “tumbleweed blowing down the deserted streets” (29). Patsy, described as the “prettiest girl in town,” is told that there are no tumbleweeds in Eldritch, but the vision is reinforced by other characters who explain how Eldritch has dried up since the mines stopped producing.

Another pervasive image of the dying town is an old race car (“rusting away—flaking away”). One of the local boys had driven the car in races, ostensibly bringing glory to the town, until he was killed in an accident and his car was dragged back to town, where the chain and axle broke, leaving the car to demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics and fall into disorder.

Yet another image of the dying town, familiar to readers of Larry McMurtry's Western fiction, is the last picture show. Eldritch's “movie house been closed down eight years,” so the kids have to go to Centerville to the movies and are scorned by Centervillians who look down on people from Eldritch.

But the central event of the play, one that is revealed in piecemeal, repetitious fashion, similar to the unveiling of Snowden's secret in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, is the death of Skelly, the local outcast eccentric. Like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird and the mysterious title character in the film Raggedy Man, Skelly wanders the streets of Eldritch, looking in windows and snooping on parked cars. His heart is right, the audience knows, but the townspeople think that he is potentially dangerous. To accuse him of having sex with animals, the kids call out “Baaa,” suggesting his supposed infatuation with sheep. Ultimately, the sheep image points to Skelly's sacrificial role in the community. No shepherd for the pastoral ideal, he becomes a martyr to the town's repressive hysteria.

Before the play ends, the audience learns that Skelly was shot to death by a local woman when he tried to help a crippled girl who had goaded a boy into an attempted rape. Neither child will tell the truth; through Wilson's dramatic irony, only the audience understands. Thus, the audience is left knowing that this Hadleyburg will keep its beliefs untested and will continue to die. Unlike in To Kill a Mockingbird or Raggedy Man, the truth will not out, nor will the hermit receive his just recognition in The Rimers of Eldritch. The town, therefore, remains blanketed with rime, a dense, chilling hoarfrost that covers everything.

Early reviews were mixed, as generally has been the case for most of Wilson's plays. One reviewer praised it for combining “humor, compassion, anger and suspense in a kind of social protest version of Our Town” (Variety 22 Feb. 1967: 64). Others found its experimental techniques—minimal set and properties, collage, and fragmented chronology—too derivative of Thornton Wilder and of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood.

One of the primary differences between Wilson's early plays and most of his later ones is the change from the harshly pessimistic and critical outlook of Rimers to a more upbeat, positive approach. He explained to Scott Haller that “it's very easy for me to be pessimistic, … to be solidly optimistic and find moments of hope and reason to live is more difficult. I would rather have something positive to say, just because it's more difficult.” Part of the change came from watching the audience reactions in the lobby at intermission of the urban tragedy, Serenading Louie:

I used to stand in the lobby and watch people come out of the theatre, rush to the water fountain and take a tranquilizer. I didn't want to do that to an audience. I decided I had to find something more positive to say. So I made Hot l a comedy.

(Life, June 1980: 30)

Coupled with his desire for a more positive statement was another idea that finally took form. As he and Marshall Mason were working late at the Circle Rep, building new seating units and varnishing seats, they heard a Steve Goodman song on the radio, “The City of New Orleans,” made popular by Arlo Guthrie. Wilson says he turned to Mason and “told him that in the back of my mind there was this other thing that I wanted to do. A lament for the lost railroads. So Marshall said, ‘Do it.’ And the next day in the office I began to write The Hot l Baltimore” (After Dark June 1978: 39).

Although The Hot l Baltimore takes place in an urban Eastern setting, it is important to Wilson's outlook as a Midwestern playwright. Along with The Mound Builders,Hot l is a transitional play that led Wilson to reexamine his attitudes toward the Midwest more fully than he had in his early, harshly satirical Midwestern plays.

As in many other Wilson plays, The Hot l Baltimore centers on the destruction of something from the past. In this play it is the old hotel, the architectural object which serves as the setting and gives the play its title. The stage directions indicate its past: “The Hotel Baltimore, built in the nineteenth century, remodeled during the Art Deco last stand of the railroads, is a five story establishment intended to be an elegant and restful haven. Its history has mirrored the rails' decline. It is scheduled for demolition.” The “e” on the “Hotel Baltimore” sign has burned out, and now the management has decided to raze the building and dislocate the inhabitants who are the focus of the play.

Among them is Bill, the night clerk and the closest to a main character in the play. Somewhat jaded and cynical because of his job, Bill is nonetheless open to being affected by the innocent exuberance of the Girl (who can be innocent despite being a whore). It is the Girl who provides the connections to the past and who advances Wilson's purpose to write a lament for the lost railroads. It is she who knows the train schedules and voices the lament: “Silver Star is due in at four-nineteen; she's more than three damn hours late. I get so mad at them for not running on time. I mean it's their own damn schedule, I don't know why they can't keep to it” (15).

Both the railroads and the Girl are associated with the West: on the wall above the front desk is “a Rivera-style mural depicting the railroad's progress westward”; she is from Arizona. She is the one who demonstrates vitality, compassion, and a belief in the individual's ability to accomplish tasks. When Paul Granger comes looking for evidence of his grandfather, the Girl tells him, “[O]f course, you can find him” and she convinces the others to help, as well. It is she who has a sense of geography and has travelled to “Denver. Amarillo. Wichita. Oklahoma City. Salt Lake City. Fort Worth. Dallas. Houston …,” recalling the train in the Steve Goodman song.

One of Wilson's techniques here is to pair characters. The Girl is connected with the night clerk because of his response to her. Pulled out of his cynicism, Bill begins to express his feelings for her, especially during one of the scenes in which Wilson uses overlapping dialogue. While the others in the lobby argue about various things, Bill tells the Girl: “I just wish you were old enough or mature enough to know what you're throwing away” (58). The dialogue indicates that the Girl represents the theme of loss that permeates the play through the dying railroads and the soon-to-be-destroyed hotel.

While the Girl remains vital through connections with the past, two other characters—Mr. Katz, the hotel manager, and Mrs. Oxenham, the day clerk—represent the unfeeling modern world, where people often perform mechanical work. These two characters demonstrate the cold efficiency that functions without compassion. Mrs. Oxenham, for example, responds emotionlessly to Paul Granger's requests for help in looking for records concerning his grandfather's stay at the hotel. Mr. Katz responds comparably to Mrs. Bellotti, despite her wrenching stories about troubles with her alcoholic son, Horse, who has been evicted from the hotel, and about her husband, who lost his leg because of diabetes.

Other pairs are Milly and Mr. Morse, representatives of the past; Suzy and April, who foreshadow what the Girl will become; and Jamie and Jackie, who indicate the debasement of family in the modern world. Rootless and disconnected, Jackie searches for meaning in health food magazines and is a prime candidate for a worthless land scam.

The two whores, Suzy and April, provide considerable humor, much of which is bawdy. Whenever April joins the crowd in the lobby, she begins by recounting a story about one of her johns. For example, she tells of one customer who decided he wanted to have sex in the tub, even though all the hotel had was hot water. When he got in, it “nearly scalded his balls off”:

Yeaah! Spanking red from the butt down. Loved it. Stayed in for twenty minutes. Very groovy experience for him. If I knew he was coming, I'd have dug out the rubber duck.


Through Milly, Wilson introduces the idea of connecting with a spirit that transcends physical reality. It is an idea that has become a leitmotif in Wilson's work, appearing subtly in several plays. Milly's spiritualism is ambiguous, for it is presented unfavorably in the notes where she is described as having “[e]legance marred by an egocentric spiritualism.” Yet her discussion of ghosts enhances Wilson's theme of connections with the past, and she provides hope. When the Girl hears Milly talk of spirits, she exclaims: “I want everyone to see them and talk to them. Something like that! Some miracle. Something huge! I want some major miracle in my lifetime!” (92). Millie also provides some hope for Paul Granger, telling him, “Your grandfather is alive, Paul. … I don't know how I know. … I just know he isn't dead” (104). Paul loses faith, and the audience never discovers if Milly's vision is true, but the leitmotif that enters this play ambiguously returns more positively in later plays.

The conclusion of The Hot l Baltimore is also somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, Paul Granger apparently gives up his search, and the “bulldozers are barking at the door.” But the final image is positive: April and Jamie dance to a song on the radio. (Although the song is not identified as “The City of New Orleans,” some productions have used it.) A few moments earlier, Suzy had burst back in after leaving angrily to exclaim: “I'm sorry. I know you love me. I can't leave like that. Mr. Morse. We been like a family, haven't we? My family” (135-36).

The final positive image, coupled with the play's humor and compassion, allowed Wilson the positive statement he wished at the time. In fact, The Hot l Baltimore fulfills many of the traditional expectations of comedy, which usually is concerned with people in society and ends with the return of social order. Hot l's conclusion is similar to the traditional ending in comedy that Northrop Frye described in Anatomy of Criticism:

The appearance of this new society is frequently signalized by some kind of party or festive ritual, which either appears at the end of the play or is assumed to take place immediately afterward.


Where Hot l follows many of the traditional elements of comedy, Wilson's next major play, The Mound Builders (1975) is more closely aligned with tragedy, which Jeffrey Cox defines as confronting “the gaps that arise between the life of man and an extra-human order, an enclosing order that might … be conceived of as the will of the gods, the power of fate, the providential plan of god, or even the rhythms of life and death.” Even though Wilson had expressed his desire to write more positive plays, he found that his characters began to control the direction of the plays, leading almost independent lives.

Like The Hot l Baltimore,The Mound Builders is concerned with preserving the past, but it is a complex play, one that does not lead to a simplistic conclusion that we must preserve the past. Rather, its genesis came as Wilson asked, “Why do we work? And why do we create?” The play attempts to answer those questions. Its tragic overtones arise from the disparity between what the characters wish their work to accomplish and “the power of fate” that opposes their wishes.

While Hot l only looks to the West, The Mound Builders leads Wilson back toward home because much of the action takes place in “Blue Shoals, Illinois—located in the extreme south of that state, in the five-state area of Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, and Illinois—at the confluence of the Wabash, Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers.”

The setting where the play begins is Urbana, Illinois, in Professor August Howe's study. As in other plays, Wilson creates a frame for the main action, so that he can emphasize the significance of the action on the characters' lives. Like The Glass Menagerie,The Mound Builders is a memory play. The frame also allows Wilson—again as Tennessee Williams does—to use cinematic techniques. In this case, the back wall of the set functions as the screen for back-projected slides of the previous summer, when the primary action of the play occurred.

The subject of the play is a fictional archaeological dig into sites associated with the Mississippian culture, a collection of Indian tribes that flourished from about 600-1100 a.d. and then disappeared, leaving only some large mounds and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a seemingly advanced civilization. The mounds are the creations that a culture has left, and they partially answer the questions that Wilson posed to himself about why mankind works and creates.

Professor Howe answers the questions, too, saying, “A man's life work is taken up, undertaken, I have no doubt, to blind him to the passing moon” (113). Much of the play focuses on the blindness as Professor Howe and his assistant Dan Loggins spend their summer at the dig.

Dan also answers the questions about why we build and create, saying that humans find various reasons to explain their need to build:

They built the mounds for the same reason I'd build the mounds. Because I wanted to make myself conspicuous; to sacrifice to the gods; to protect me from floods, or animals; because my grandfather built mounds; because I was sick of digging holes; because I didn't have the technology to build pyramids and a person isn't happy unless he's building something.


Dan goes on to note that as societies advance, “their rationalization for building … becomes more sophisticated.” But beneath it all is an innate human desire to create.

For Dan and August, their work that summer is hugely successful. They discover the grave of what must have been a “god-king” because of the items buried in the gravesite, particularly a gold death mask. It is probably going to be “the most important archaeological dig in America.” When August's department chairman hears of the discovery, he begins thinking of having his picture on the cover of Newsweek. Dan believes there is “a man's life work here.”

Neither August nor Dan, however, had anticipated the violence of Chad Jasker's response to their discovery. Chad, the son of the man who owns the land, has spent the last few summers hanging around the diggings. The summer before he had been infatuated with Jean, who is now Dan's wife and pregnant with their first child. This summer he sneaks out at night with Cynthia, August's wife, and makes subtle advances to Dan.

Like other Wilson plays, The Mound Builders is concerned with betrayal, and Chad is the victim. For Chad, the land represents his future. He and his father plan to develop the area as the new interstate highway comes through, and they have been negotiating to have a Holiday Inn built there. Dan and August, however, knowing the importance of the mounds, have used a 1954 law about defacing Indian monuments to have the interstate highway rerouted around the area. They have not told Chad, and after he discovers what they have done, he destroys all of their findings, bulldozes the mounds with the god-king's grave, and apparently disappears with Dan into the bottom of the lake.

The sense of tragedy arises not only from the deaths but also because of the destruction of work and family, two areas that Wilson values. Nothing remains of the archaeological finds, not even the photographs, because Cynthia destroyed them out of loyalty to Chad. (Therefore, for the audience to see some slides of their findings projected on the back wall requires a willing suspension of disbelief.) Without Dan, August can no longer work, and his marriage to Cynthia has ended. The one hopeful glimmer comes through Jean's baby, but the audience learns nothing about its birth and potential for the future.

Besides the themes of work, family, and betrayal, this play is concerned with lost connections to the past, and it is the first major play in which Wilson displays an interest in his Indian past. (He is one-eighth Osage.) In his introduction to The Gingham Dog, Wilson laments: “We're raping our land. Ignoring (deeply, truly) the Indian, the black man, and each other.” Throughout The Mound Builders Wilson points to the similarity between ancient Indian and modern American culture, especially the desire to create that ties cultures together. There is also a suggestion of the power of a transcendent spirit, perhaps fate, similar to the spiritual power mentioned by Milly in The Hot l Baltimore.

Although his use of factual information about Indian cultures is central to the play, Wilson has not simply endorsed the anthropologists who protect heritage and opposed the developers who destroy it. While Wilson's sympathy is with those who preserve, in several ways he presents August and Dan's being blinded “to the passing moon,” just as Chad is. They ignore human concerns while they throw themselves into their work.

Wilson has commented that The Mound Builders is his favorite play, and its complexity makes it perhaps his most satisfying play to read. It is probably his most literate play as well, filled with allusions to literature (Salinger, Camus), psychology (Otto Rank), and anthropology. It was, nonetheless, not a theatrical success, partially because the complexity that engages readers became problematic for some reviewers as they evaluated the play's theatricality. Harold Clurman in The Nation found it “provocative and unmistakably felt. What weakens it is that much of its detail is diffuse and ill-digested” (15 Mar 1975: 315).

When it was revived in January 1986 in a slightly revised version (Kirsten, August's and Cynthia's daughter, was no longer a character), the play fared little better at the hands of the critics. Frank Rich in The New York Times thought that the play had “fragments of interest,” but they were “buried beneath mounds, if not mountains, of talk” (1 Feb. 1986).

Wilson's next plays after The Mound Builders, however, were much more successful, and these are his plays about the Talley family from Lebanon, Missouri, Wilson's birthplace. Three related plays—5th of July (1978), Talley's Folly (1980), and Talley & Son (1985)—concern the Talleys and have deep connections with Wilson's past, as Mel Gussow explains:

When Lanford Wilson was growing up in Ozark, Missouri, there was a large rambling farmhouse on Harper's Hill, overlooking the Finley River and the town. The building was almost plantation-size and represented something awesome, unattainable, and mysterious—a haunted house to the neighborhood children.


Originally Wilson did not plan to write a series of plays:

I didn't sit down and say, “I'm going to write a play cycle.” … It just happened. I started working on a single play to be called The War in Lebanon, which was to take place in 1944 or '45. But when I sat down and worked out the history of the Talley family, I realized immediately that it was very exciting and complex, especially if you dissect the family's fortunes at specific times—the Civil War, World War I and II, maybe Korea, and Vietnam.

(New York Times 17 Feb 1980: 33)

In April 1978 Wilson's 5th of July opened at the Circle Repertory Theater in New York and ran for 168 performances. Although Wilson originally envisioned the play for the bicentennial, in the final version 5th of July begins on Independence Day 1977 and ends the next day, taking place in the Talleys' sprawling house near Lebanon. Ken Talley, Jr., who lost his legs in combat in Vietnam, has returned to the family home with his homosexual lover, Jed. During the play, past betrayals are exposed, and eventually the Talleys are reconciled to their past. As before, Wilson uses a Chekhovian situation for dramatic impact. In this case the Talley farmhouse near Lebanon functions as Chekhov's cherry orchard did.

Ken has come from his home in St. Louis ostensibly to celebrate the holiday and to help his Aunt Sally distribute the ashes of her late husband, Matt Friedman, in the nearby river. Ken's main purpose, however, is to convince his old friends, John and Gwen Landis, to buy the Talley house. John and Ken had been childhood friends before John met and later married Gwen, heiress to a copper fortune, while all three were students at Berkeley. The other characters are Ken's friend, Jed, a botanist who has been living and tending plants on the farm; Ken's sister, June, who once was in love with John; June's fourteen-year-old daughter, Shirley; and Wes, Gwen Landis' composer friend.

As in other Wilson plays the drama takes place at a significant time in the lives of these characters when all are about to make important decisions. Also, all the main characters have some important but previously hidden information to confront about themselves and their relations with others. The play's dramatic structure leads them to unearth the information.

Ken Talley faces two major decisions, one of which concerns his professional future. After the war Ken became certified to teach, but he fears that high school students will be repulsed by a teacher who has to walk with crutches and prostheses. He has, though, been offered a teaching job back in his home town, and he has to decide whether to accept the offer.

His second major decision concerns the farmhouse, the place that connects him to the past. As the play begins, he has apparently decided to refuse the teaching job, sell the farm, and use the proceeds to finance a trip around the world. To do so will cause a rift between him and Jed, because Jed has long-range plans for his plants at the Talley place. He has even rediscovered a long-lost species of rose and had it placed in the Royal Horticultural Society in England.

John Landis also has several reasons to be there. His wife, Gwen, has decided to become a singer, but she has a psychological block when she sings in the studio. They are therefore looking at the Talley place as an alternative studio so she can spend her fortune to advance her career. John's unspoken reason, though, is to see June, for whom he also has an offer. Although it is never made explicit, John is probably Shirley's father. His offer concerns having Shirley live with him, since June is a single parent. With Gwen's wealth, John thinks that he can provide Shirley with a more comfortable life than June can.

One clue to Wilson's purpose comes from the title. This bicentennial play ending the day after Independence Day—the day activity returns to normal—suggests the need to return to some traditional American values to regain equilibrium after the chaos of the sixties and the Vietnam era. Likewise, Aunt Sally's spreading of Matt's ashes provides a counterpointing image of return. So, too, does Jed's identifying the old species of rose.

Among the traditional values the play endorses are human communication, endurance, compassion, humor, and significant work. As the play begins, Ken tries to decipher a tape-recorded story from a handicapped student named Johnny Young. As the play draws to a close, Ken finally translates the difficult tape and discovers that Johnny Young's message emphasizes survival. The theme of endurance also comes humorously through Wes' black humor Eskimo folk tale about the caribou meat thawed miraculously by a “tremendous, powerful fart.”

Most of the humor comes in witty interchanges among the characters, especially from Gwen, who is constantly referring to the many operations she has had. Her humor is often bawdy because during one of her operations the doctors “cut a nerve connected to some sexual response thing so I feel sex like five times as intense as the normal person.” Gwen is ecstatic after seeing Shirley looking in the window while John and Gwen make love:

Oh, God, we were caught in the act! It was too fantastic. I looked back and saw this face at the window. Oh, shit, spies. No, audience! Oh, God, how fabulous. And like wow, I really hit the moon. I mean I came like a flash!


Besides emphasizing humor, Wilson also values doing significant work that helps us move into the future while remaining grounded in values of the past. A future full of potential is possible through human effort. Earlier June had spoken of a similar idea when she admonished Shirley for disparaging their actions in the sixties: “You've no idea of the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it's all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved” (62). Ken's teaching is a calling, and it is important work for him to continue.

In fact, part of the impetus for the play came from Wilson's belief in teaching as significant work, a conclusion he reached after teaching at Southhampton College:

I discovered that I had no talent for teaching, so I said, “If you can't teach, write about someone who is a natural teacher and how something happens to completely destroy his style so he's terrified of going back to the classroom.

(New York Times 7 June 1981: 21.15)

Ken's ambivalence about his calling stems partially from the betrayal he and the other characters must confront: Ken's reasons for being drafted. Originally, Ken, Gwen, and John had planned on a trip to Europe together, but John and Gwen unexpectedly departed a week early and left Ken behind. When Ken and John finally discuss what happened, Ken learns that it was John's decision to leave and break off any relationship with Ken. Ken suddenly realizes that he had lost control of his life by letting himself be drafted. Now is the time he can regain control.

Like 5th of July, the next play about the Talley family, Talley's Folly, depends upon breaking through layers of personal covering before the characters confront hidden knowledge, but Talley's Folley takes place on a smaller scale. The play is limited to two people: Sally Talley, the Aunt Sally of 5th of July; and Matt Friedman, whose ashes are scattered at the end of 5th of July. Wilson's own characters inspired him to write Talley's Folly: “I liked the two characters … and I wanted to see the play. I said to myself, if I do it, I should go all the way and make it the sweet valentine it should be. …” Second, he wanted to create a history to help Helen Stenborg understand her role as Aunt Sally in 5th of July. A third important element was Judd Hirsch's association with the Circle Rep company. When Hirsch, who had played Bill, the desk clerk in Hot l Baltimore, came to a performance of 5th of July, Wilson suddenly realized that his image of the younger Matt increasingly took the shape of Hirsch.

Talley's Folly is set on 4 July 1944, thirty-three years before 5th of July. Matt Friedman, a 42-year-old Jewish accountant from St. Louis, has come to propose to Sally Talley, a 31-year-old nurse, who had seemed to be dedicated to life as an old maid.

The action takes place in a boathouse built by Sally's uncle, Whistler Talley, in 1870. Uncle Whistler had the habit of building the things he wanted to because he “got pleasure out of making things for people” (19). But in a pragmatic community, his buildings were known as Talley's follies, and such is the boathouse where Matt Friedman courts Sally Talley.

A year earlier, she and Matt had had a most unusual experience at the boathouse when they thought they had seen a UFO. In the interim, Sally's family members (except Aunt Charlotte) have tried to convince her that Matt—a dark, urban intellectual who speaks his mind freely—can never become part of their family. Sally, however, is an independent thinker who is appalled by her family's emphasis on making money because the war has made it possible. She is, however, ready to rebuff his proposal, not because of her family's objections, but because she believes she is unsuited for marriage for reasons the play eventually makes clear.

As a result, Sally resists all of Matt's advances until after he tells her his most private experience: the story of his family's persecution in Europe when he was a boy, a story so painful that he can only tell it in third person, calling himself a “probable Lit” (meaning probably from Lithuania). Because of this experience Matt had resolved “never to be responsible for bringing into such a world another child to be killed for a political purpose” (40). At first, Sally reacts angrily, thinking that her Aunt Charlotte has told Matt Sally's secret.

Through Matt's dedication to uncovering the truth, Sally finally tells why she is angry and why she fears marriage: as a young girl she had contracted a pelvic fever that left her unable to bear children. Harley Campbell ended their engagement, and her father treated her as if she were “a broken swing.” Thinking herself no longer suited for marriage, she has resigned herself to a solitary life. When she understands that Matt's resolution never to bring children into such a violent world is truthful, she realizes that she has found someone with a comparable outlook on life, and the play ends in an unequivocally positive way.

Unlike 5th of July, which is a realistic play, Talley's Folly breaks the barrier between audience and stage at the very beginning. Matt Friedman comes onstage and speaks directly to the audience, sounding something like the stage manager in Our Town. He explains that the play will take ninety-seven minutes without intermission, and he calls it a “waltz,” a “no-holds-barred romantic story,” and a “valentine.” He also makes it clear that this play is not a realistic one but a romantic fairy tale: “There was a time—or, all right, I think that has to be: Once upon a time—there was a hope throughout the land.”

But during this introduction consisting of his casual, humorous, direct address to the audience, he touches upon several of Wilson's important themes, particularly the nature of work and prosperity. After remarking to the audience that worker bees probably live no longer than twenty days and nights, Matt comments: “Work. Work is very much to the point” (4) and gestures to the set, Whistler Talley's boathouse folly.

Underlying these remarks is the Talley family's work that allows them to get rich on the war. (In Talley & Son Wilson reveals that the Talley factory makes army fatigue pants.) In a long, serious speech about the relationship between the war and prosperity, Matt comments:

There is a house on the hill up there, and there is a family that is not at peace but in grave danger of prosperity. And there is a girl in the house on the hill up there who is a terrible embarrassment to her family because she remembers that old hope, and questions this new fortune. …


Wilson immediately breaks this seriousness by having Matt repeat the entire monologue, racing breathlessly, for the “latecomers.”

It is nonetheless clear that Talley's Folly is concerned, as are other Wilson plays, with the nature of human work, intolerance, and betrayal. Work dedicated singly to profit, although it has often been glorified in American experience, does not belong in Wilson's pastoral Midwest—nor does the Talley family intolerance that causes Sally's brother, Buddy, to meet Matt Friedman at the door with a shotgun because he is Jewish. The betrayals in this play are private and public: Sally has been betrayed by her family's rejection of her; Matt has been betrayed by the viciousness of the world.

Through Matt and Sally's union Wilson presents the most nearly perfect relationship available in his world. Two independent people who have been buffeted by violence and intolerance but still have compassion and humor find one another. The force that brings them together is only suggested; Matt had given Sally a ride home from a dance the year before, and they both saw a UFO at the boathouse. Whatever spirit or fate (Matt calls it a “mischievous angel”) caused the meeting remains a mystery.

Typically for Wilson's plays, Talley's Folly received some negative notices, but generally reviewers were enthusiastic. Among the negative reviews, Gerald Weales said it was “little more than an efficient theatre piece,” and Robert Brustein called it a “wittily written, carefully manufactured fake.” Most reviewers, however, were more positive. Mel Gussow, for example, praised the play and called Wilson “one of our most gifted playwrights, a dramatist who deals perceptively with definable American themes.” He continued: “In Talley's Folly, he introduces us to two wonderful people, humanizing and warming them with the radiance of his abundant talent. Talley's Folly is a play to savor and to cheer” (New York Times 4 May 1979: III.3). Walter Kerr also responded positively: “Mr. Wilson has written it tightly, brightly and honestly with such a beguiling smile that when the house lights come up again to interrupt the principals' embrace—turning the theatre back into the theatre again—you feel quite as restored as they do. A treasure” (New York Times 13 May 1979: II.5).

Wilson was surprised at this response:

I thought it was going to be the most unpopular thing I'd ever written. There was nothing compromised in the writing. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I couldn't believe it when people liked it.

(Haller 26)

The third play in the Talley series reopened in New York in 1985 under a new title. Now called Talley & Son, the play opened originally as A Tale Told in 1981 to mixed reviews. The play began when Wilson decided that he wanted to write a play for Elizabeth Sturges, one of the members of the Circle Rep:

The only things I knew at the start were that it was in a 1944 household where nobody smokes, certainly not in the parlor. And no one swears. And Aunt Lottie—Liz Sturges—walks through the room smoking a cigarette and saying, “Oh, kiss my ass.”

(Haller 29)

This play also has roots in Wilson's Midwestern experience. He noted after returning to Lebanon years later that the important people of his youth who stayed home had “terrible lives, filled with divorce, impotence, alcoholism, murder and suicide,” and these are the people about whom Talley & Son was written.

Talley & Son takes place in the Talley house on 4 July 1944. It is concerned with the simultaneous events that take place in the house while Matt Friedman courts Sally Talley in the nearby boathouse. On this day, several significant events occur that affect the Talley family.

Eldon Talley and his partner Harley Campbell are trying to decide whether to sell their clothing factory to a conglomerate after the war. Calvin Stuart Talley, who is Eldon's father and the family's patriarch, has fallen into a pattern of days of senility interspersed with hours of clarity. As a result, Eldon does not need his father's approval, for he has had his father declared incompetent. The business deal is complicated, though, by Eldon's two sons' interests in the business. Both sons, Buddy and Timmy, are in the war, but as the play begins, Buddy has returned on furlough because the family thought Old Man Talley was near death.

Before the day is over, the family discovers that Timmy has been killed in the war (but his ghost is a character in the play); the daughter of the family washerwoman comes and tells Eldon that she knows he is actually her father and expects him to provide for her; Sally Talley comes home briefly to get her things before she goes off to St. Louis to marry Matt Friedman; Sally's Aunt Charlotte, who is dying from cancer she apparently got painting radium on clock faces, lives out her last hours hoping that Sally will fulfill her own desires to rebel against the small-minded WASP attitudes of her family.

As in the other Wilson plays, Talley & Son concerns characters who uncover some long-dormant facts about themselves and their family, and this play criticizes Midwestern competitive materialism, long upheld as an American strength. Old Man Talley reveals himself to be a ruthless, unfeeling businessman whose only pleasures have been derived from the joys of competition. He becomes clear-headed long enough to maneuver an arrangement that gets rid of Eldon's illegitimate daughter, Avalaine Platt. Talley arranges for her to marry Emmet Young, the Talley's handyman, and agrees to set Emmet up with a good job at the factory, knowing that the factory is about to be sold to a conglomerate that will transfer the business to Louisiana, and the betrayal will be complete.

But in another twist, Eldon, who has long been charged by his father with being spineless, trades the family's interest in the factory to Harley for Harley's interest in the bank and thus makes his father's arrangement with Avalaine moot. It will cost the Talleys a good deal of money, because Harley will be the only one to profit from the sale of the factory to the conglomerate. But it provides Eldon with one chance to separate himself from his father.

It also means that Eldon will not be the one to give up the factory; Harley will. Despite his adultery and previous lack of courage in facing his father, Eldon Talley is presented positively in part because he believes in the value of the good workmanship that has gone into his company's product. He has personally inspected the fatigues that the factory makes, and Timmy reemphasizes their durability, as well, by telling a story of his experiences.

The conglomerate that takes over will have much less interest in good work. As Eldon notes, he is in “the business of making fatigue pants,” but the company's representative says, “Well, we're in the business of making money” (50). Charlotte's cancer, the product of the American factory system, is apparently a metaphor for what Wilson thinks is wrong with this world based on a “go ahead, get ahead” mentality.

Its newest title indicates the play's concern with business. In fact, each title provides an interesting insight into the play. The original, War in Lebanon, had a dual meaning, for it referred to the effect of World War II on the inhabitants of Lebanon, Missouri, and it suggested the internal struggle in the Talley family. It also indicated Wilson's use of wars (WW II here, Vietnam in 5th of July) to provide focus in his plays. The second title, A Tale Told, comes from Psalm 90, a passage that serves as the epigraph for the published version of Talley & Son: “Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.” This passage emphasizes the “secret sins” that come back to haunt the characters and provide the basis for the narrative.

The current title, Talley & Son, calls forth the two important themes of family and work. On the one hand, the struggles between two sets of fathers and sons—Old Man Talley and Eldon, Eldon and Buddy—are important to the play. Literally, the title is the name of the family business. In the revision Wilson completely rewrote the final scene to strengthen Eldon's character and make the father/son struggle one of the play's principal concerns.

Wilson's presentation of Timmy is particularly interesting. As noted, other Wilson plays have often pointed subtly to the existence of a transcendent spirit, but Timmy's ghostly presence in Talley & Son brings the leitmotif into the foreground. Timmy becomes something of a chorus, a counterpoint to the competitive powermongering of the rest of the Talleys. Timmy communicates with Lottie, another positive character who opposes the way the family functions. And Timmy demonstrates an appreciation for the land. When he sees Tinian Island in the Pacific, he responds positively because it is “the first real farm island we've come across,” and he feels “witched,” overcome by the beauty of the island because it reminds him of the beauty of his home.

The play ends ambiguously, for Timmy and Lottie, the two most sympathetic characters, are either dead or dying. For those who know Wilson's other Talley plays, though, the hope comes through Buddy and Olive's offspring, Ken and June of 5th of July, and especially through the union of Sally Talley and Matt Friedman.

These three Talley plays demonstrate Lanford Wilson's complex connection with other Western and Midwestern writers. Behind the plays remains an acute but ironic awareness of traditional American values, many of which have been lost or more likely corrupted through time. It is no coincidence that the three plays take place on Independence Day. The spirit of the place leads the characters to search for some connections to the past, and as they do so, they often discover that they have ignored some of their own desires or failed to confront their deepest fears. Wilson, therefore, has no simplistic attitude about how wonderful the good old days were; he acknowledges the limitations and follies. But he also suggests that too often the present compounds the errors of the past, particularly when past problems are ignored. All of these plays concern the need to unearth the past and are central to Wilson's work.

In 1982 Wilson left the Talley family to write Angels Fall, which is set in New Mexico. The play was commissioned for the New World Festival in Miami, but Wilson was having trouble coming up with an idea. He recalls how an image came to him:

Suddenly, I saw the inside of this mission and these people who had been detained. A woman throwing her purse down on a bench and saying, “Is this the pits?” and this other guy going “Ohhhhh, rah-thah. …” It was very strange to get a flash like that, and it was so startling I went with it. Pretty soon, all six characters came to me, all of them in various states of crisis.

(Shewey 18)

Because of a nuclear accident at a uranium mine that closes all the roads, several travelers seek refuge at a mission and confront the possibility of the end of the world. Niles Harris, a fifty-six-year-old art history professor, is traveling with his thirty-year-old wife, Vita, from their home in Providence, Rhode Island, to a psychological treatment center in Arizona. Harris has had a crisis of faith concerning his teaching, and the administrators at his college have asked him to undergo therapy.

Also forced to stop in the mission are Marion Clay, a recently widowed art gallery owner in her early forties, and Salvatore “Zappy” Zappala, a twenty-one-year-old professional tennis player. Marion began managing Zappy's career before her husband died, and now they are lovers.

The parish priest, Father William Doherty, welcomes the travelers but is himself in the throes of a personal crisis. His favorite parishioner, a brilliant half-Indian named Don Tabaha, had planned to return to New Mexico and minister to sick Indians on various reservations, but Don has recently decided to accept instead a lucrative offer to go to California and join a scientific research firm.

The setting—the ancient New Mexican desert threatened by nuclear holocaust—offers a similar juxtaposition of past versus present, as we find in the main characters' conflicts. The art professor has discovered the relativism of the modern age and is immobilized by it. The priest discovers that he has made his personal goal—that young Don commit himself to the old way of life—a singular mission even though Don's accepting the modern world and doing cancer research might ultimately benefit millions.

In this play Wilson returns to his concern with discovering what one's proper work should be. Father Doherty emphasizes this theme when he finds a biblical passage about the apocalypse: “‘Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness?’” (89-90). He goes on to advise Niles that he must return to his teaching, for being a teacher, like being a priest, is a calling:

So you simply have to find a way to teach. One of those professions, I've always thought, one is called to. As an artist is called, or a priest is called, or as a doctor is called.


Even the tennis player believes himself called, and he relates the moment when he was eleven, and he knew he would be a tennis player.

In several ways Angels Fall suggests one of the continuing frontier paradigms in American literature: the captivity narrative. From early Puritan captivity narratives through James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales to Sam Shepard's Operation Sidewinder, American writers have concentrated on characters who are captured (usually by Indians) on the American frontier and who ultimately undergo metamorphosis as a result of the experience. As Richard Slotkin makes clear in Regeneration Through Violence the transformation often results from a violent confrontation, but in Wilson's play, the vehicle is the threat of apocalyptic violence and the characters' evocative language, as they spend their time—as they should when facing possible annihilation—asking ultimate questions.

While Wilson refrains from presenting a violent confrontation, he also stops short of presenting any clear redemption. As the play ends, Don Tabaha leaves for his high-paying research job; Niles and Vita continue on their way to the sanitarium; Zappy will catch a flight to his next tournament; and Father Doherty “begins ringing the bell to call the congregation to Mass as the lights fade.” The title, taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, also mutes the emphasis on redemption.

In the end, Wilson provides no ultimate answers for these characters, but like other Wilson plays, Angels Fall is concerned with the destruction of the past, emphasizes the need for doing significant work, and presents a strong anti-materialistic theme.

It is clear that Lanford Wilson demonstrates varied connections with and influences of other playwrights. His plays provide marked similarities with other Western American playwrights such as William Saroyan, Preston Jones, Sam Shepard, and Mark Medoff. Like them he draws from his own experiences in the West and Midwest for plot, dialogue, and theme. Like Saroyan, he has written plays that throw a variety of misfits together. Like Preston Jones, Wilson writes ambivalently about the values connected with the past but with an abiding sense of place. Like Shepard, Wilson experiments with style and has awareness of the power of myth. Like Medoff, Wilson often writes about the difficulty in and the need for communication.

But Wilson's dramatic influences go beyond his connections with Western dramatists. Perhaps the strongest influence in many ways remains Tennessee Williams, another playwright with Midwestern ties. Williams' St. Louis play, The Glass Menagerie, was a clear forerunner of Wilson's Lemon Sky. And Wilson knew and worked with Williams during his lifetime. Another important influence is Chekhov; many of Wilson's plays draw on Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and use an impending threat to a cherished emblem of the past for their dramatic focus. And there are echoes of many other plays and playwrights: Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes, Robert Sherwood's The Petrified Forest, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and William Inge's Bus Stop and Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

In assessing Wilson's work, Mel Gussow looks less to dramatists for influences than to novelists:

In thinking about his American artistic forbears, one looks less to playwrights than to novelists such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty. Wilson begins as a regionalist but becomes national. He is definably an American playwright, rooted in the farms and hills of his Ozark birthplace and also in the streets and cafes of his adopted city, New York.


One especially interesting aspect of Wilson's writing is his repertory approach, particularly the importance of the company of actors at the Circle Rep. Over the years Wilson has written for specific actors: Talley's Folly for Judd Hirsch and Talley & Son for Liz Sturges are two examples. But his writing is influenced in other ways by that association. He approaches the script as a draft through all the early stages, through early rehearsals, and even through opening performances. He listens carefully to the readings and weighs the actors' and directors' suggestions, often revising and rearranging based upon those comments. Then, he attends to critical comments. Throughout his career, Wilson has made a practice of revising his works after they have opened. As in the case of Talley & Son, sometimes the plays are revised extensively. In other cases such as the revision of Lemon Sky, the revisions are small and stylistic.

While the revising process is methodical, Wilson often depends on spontaneity when he writes plays. He has often commented on the suddenness with which ideas come to him. And he also mentions how his characters begin to dominate the direction of his plays, almost as if they have lives of their own. For example, he has said that he had hoped that Don Tabaha in Angels Fall would stay on the reservation, but to his dismay, the character left.

Despite all his work, Wilson has received little critical notice in academic circles, particularly compared to his younger contemporary, Sam Shepard. He was the subject of a Dictionary of Literary Biography article by Ann Crawford Dreher in 1981. In 1984 two dissertations on Wilson were completed, one by Laurence Myers on “Characterization in Lanford Wilson's Plays” at Kent State University; the other by Nicholas Leland at the University of California, Santa Barbara, titled “A Critical Analysis of the Major Plays of Lanford Wilson.” As yet, few critical articles have appeared, but a study in the Twayne's United States Authors Series is scheduled for publication in 1987.

Despite limited recognition by academic critics, these plays demonstrate that Lanford Wilson is one of our most distinguished playwrights. Now fifty, with over forty plays and numerous awards, Wilson shows every sign of continuing his long and productive career. A playwright with the gift of language and character, one with deep Midwestern roots and an emphasis on the values of meaningful work, the paradoxical need for individuality and community, and the past, Lanford Wilson will no doubt continue to light up the Great White Way and Off-Broadway, and he will gain the academic recognition he deserves. But he writes not for the recognition, but to satisfy the human desire to create something that transcends time. When Don Shewey asked Wilson why he writes, he answered by recalling the lines spoken by August Howe in The Mound Builders: “Why … is probably answered in that speech. … To blind myself to the passing moon. To forget time.”

Selected Bibliography

Books and Articles:

Allen, Jennifer. “Portrait: Lanford Wilson.” Life June 1980: 29-30.

Baker, Rob. “Bill Hurt and Lanford Wilson: Player and Playwright Meet at the Circle.” After Dark June 1978: 38-41.

Berkvist, Robert. “Lanford Wilson—Can He Score on Broadway?” New York Times 17 Feb. 1980: 2.1, 3.

Cox, Jeffrey. In the Shadows of Romance. Athens: Ohio UP, 1987.

Dace, Trish. “Plainsongs and Fancies.” Soho Weekly News 5 Nov. 1980: 20.

Dasgupta, Gautam. “Lanford Wilson.” American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. Eds. Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981. 27-39.

Dreher, Ann Crawford. “Lanford Wilson.” Twentieth Century American Dramatists, Part Two K-Z. Vol. 7 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. John MacNicholas. Detroit: Gale, 1981. 350-68.

Flatley, Guy. “Lanford Is One ‘L’ of a Playwright.” New York Times 22 Apr. 1973: C21.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. New York: Atheneum, 1957.

Gussow, Mel. “Lanford Wilson on Broadway.” Horizon May 1980: 30-37.

Haller, Scott. “The Dramatic Rise of Lanford Wilson.” Saturday Review Aug. 1981: 26-29.

Leland, Nicholas Frederick. “A Critical Analysis of the Major Plays of Lanford Wilson.” Diss. U of California, Santa Barbara, 1984. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1986. 8500010.

Loney, Glenn. “Can Circle Rep Survive Success.” After Dark Mar. 1977: 46-50.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.

Myers, Laurence Douglas. “Characterization in Lanford Wilson's Plays.” Diss. Kent State U, 1984. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1986. 84297996.

Paul, John Steven. “Who Are You? Who Are We? Two Questions Raised in Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly.Cresset 43.8 (1980): 25-27.

Sainer, Arthur. “Lanford Wilson.” Contemporary Dramatists. Ed. James Vinson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973. 831-34.

Schvey, Henry I. “Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson.” Essays on Contemporary American Drama. Ed. Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim. Munich: Heubner, 1981. 225-40.

Shewey, Don. “I Hear America Talking.” Rolling Stone 22 Jul. 1982: 18-20.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1973.

Weales, Gerald. “American Theater Watch, 1979-1980.” Georgia Review 34 (1980): 497-508.

Wetzsteon, Ross. “The Most Populist Playwright.” New York 8 Nov. 1982: 40-45.

Selected Reviews:

Barnes, Clive. “Stage: Immediacy Illuminates Wilson's Lemon Sky.;” New York Times 18 May 1970: 40.

Clurman, Harold. “Theatre: Lemon Sky.Nation 15 Mar. 1975: 315-16.

Gussow, Mel. “Stage: Wilson's Talley's Folly.New York Times 4 May 1979: III.3.

Kalem, T. E. “Theatre.” Time 3 Mar. 1967: 52.

Kerr, Walter. “Three New Plays, One ‘A Treasure.’” New York Times 13 May 1979: II.5.

Klein, Alvin. “Another for Wilson's Tally.” New York Times 7 June 1981: III.23.

Oliver, Edith. “Mound BuildersNew Yorker 17 Feb. 1975: 84-85.

Simon, John. “The ‘Me’ You Must Get to Know.” New York 1 June 1970: 75.


Wilson, Lanford. Telephone interview. 3 Nov. 1986.

Richard Hornby (essay date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. “The Decline of the American Musical Comedy.” Hudson Review 41, no. 1 (spring 1988): 182-88.

[In the following excerpt, Hornby discusses Burn This and compares Wilson with other contemporary playwrights.]

Lanford Wilson's Burn This concerns three young people—two dancers and a copywriter—who share a Soho loft. The male dancer, a homosexual, has just died in a boating accident, and it becomes clear, in their grief, that the two remaining roommates were in love with him. The female dancer has a boyfriend, a successful screenwriter, whom she likes but does not really love; when the dead roommate's brother arrives, a bizarre, drunk, long-haired, foul-mouthed individual, she falls into a passionate affair with him, despite their obvious differences in temperament and basic dislike for each other. In the end, the woman's remaining roommate (the advertising writer) has moved out, leaving a scornful note ending with the words, “Burn this”; her ex-boyfriend has gone to Hollywood; her new lover has lost his job as maitre d'hôtel in a New Jersey restaurant and separated from his wife and family; and the two mismatched sweethearts are left alone with each other in dismay and despair.

Burn This displays the narrowness of scope and looseness of structure so typical of realistic American playwriting today. What elevates Wilson above similar writers like David Mamet, Marsha Norman, Michael Weller, or Tina Howe is his surer literary sense; behind the apparently shapeless slices of life in his plays are traditional literary devices that invigorate what would otherwise be tame pieces of reportage. The brother in Burn This is a traditional intruder figure going back to Aristophanic comedy, an alazon, or boaster and spoilsport, who tries to gain access to the feast; in Burn This he even interrupts a champagne supper between the young woman and the screenwriter. The love triangle, and the general movement from death and separation to a new union, are typical of Western comedy over the past two millennia.

Furthermore, Wilson gives all the traditional archetypes a sardonic twist. The intruder, who seems so bohemian, actually has a very middle-class job plus a wife and family, just as the dancers and writers, whom we would expect to have an unconventional lifestyle, seem very staid and bourgeois. The “happy” ending, with the couple united, is so bitter that it does not seem comic at all except in the ironic sense. Other white American playwrights today—whether commercial, serious, or avant-garde—are either all surface or all depth; Wilson's plays have both an engaging surface and intriguing depths. He is not a great writer; he usually shrinks from even indirect treatment of major existential or social themes, and his dialogue lacks the distinction found, for example, in our black playwrights like August Wilson, whose Fences I reviewed here last fall. But he is a good minor playwright, which is about all he seems to want to be.

John Malkovich is so explosive as the brother that he has been compared to the young Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Brando, he comes on so strong that he threatens to overwhelm the play. In this case, however, the rest of the cast balances him beautifully. Joan Allen is sensitive, intelligent, and emotionally powerful; she also has the bodily control to convince you that she is a professional dancer. Jonathan Hogan gives a superbly detailed yet spontaneous performance as the screenwriter, and Lou Liberatore, as the third roommate, knows how to play a background role with skill and insight without ever calling undue attention to himself. Marshall W. Mason, one of our best directors of original plays, directed with his usual skill and care; John Lee Beatty's magnificent setting of the loft with its cast-iron columns, set against a backdrop of windows showing a huge trompe l'oeil of a hazy skyline, deserves all the awards it will probably win.

Rudolf Erben (essay date February 1989)

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SOURCE: Erben, Rudolf. “The Western Holdup Play: The Pilgrimage Continues.” Western American Literature 23, no. 4 (February 1989): 311-22.

[In the following excerpt, Erben characterizes Wilson's Angels Fall as a comment on the modern American West.]

With The Petrified Forest (1935), Robert E. Sherwood introduced to America a new dramatic genre, which we can call the western holdup play. Sherwood's play and the holdup formula have subsequently become the model for such significant western American plays as William Inge's Bus Stop (1955), Mark Medoff's When You Comin Back, Red Ryder? (1973), Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall (1982), and Marsha Norman's The Holdup (1983).

Structurally, the western holdup play builds on an old dramatic convention, known by such diverse names as the “lifeboat” or the “snow-bound” genre. Though obviously contrived and conducive more to thought and talk than action and plot, the formula ensures dramatic unity and brings together characters who would not otherwise have met. Imprisoned by forces beyond their control, strangers start questioning themselves and one another under the pressure of confinement. When they are finally released, they have not only gained existential insights, but their lives are changed.

Despite shared characteristics with the older models, the five plays I selected constitute a particular genre, and I believe that the term “holdup play” clears up terminological confusions. In addition to suggesting the westernness of the plays, this term allows for variations within the genre that do not easily fit into the category of the “lifeboat” or “snowbound” play. As Walter Kerr says about the “snowbound” play, a group may be forced to “remain where it is until the weather or the gunsmoke clears.”1 Accordingly, holdups of a different nature occur in the western holdup play. While the characters in Bus Stop are, indeed, snowbound, those in Angels Fall are trapped by a nuclear accident. And old-time or modern-day desperadoes hold everyone captive in The Petrified Forest, When You Comin Back, Red Ryder?, and The Holdup.

The western subject matter distinguishes the holdup play from its predecessors. Not only the characters have arrived at a crossroad, but the American West as well; the old and the new West meet in the plays. With the exception of the Midwestern Bus Stop, they are set in the rural Southwest where, according to Ima Honaker Herron in The Small Town in American Drama, “isolated communities saved from revolutionary change by the West's vast expanse” exist still today.2 All the plays take place in desolate outposts, consisting of little more than a diner or a gas station located along remote highway stretches or a lonely crossroad. Even before the holdup occurs, these communities are conspicuously out of place, out of time. For the passers-by, whether travelers or drifters, the small communities are way stations; for those who stay and only long to get away, dead-ends.

Thus, the western holdup play presents the American West in dramatic tension, between past and present, process and place. As Victor Turner says about pilgrims on a mythical journey, the dramatic characters encounter dangers, which change their “inner and sometimes outer condition,” as they pass “from structure to structure through communitas.”3 The holdup forces the characters to confront a similar frontier experience to that of the western settlers; it transforms them until they become themselves a “total symbol, a symbol of totality.”4 Thus, they symbolize the American West in change.


Carl's summary of the events in Bus Stop and Father Doherty's remarks in Wilson's Angels Fall define the western holdup play. Father Doherty analyzes the effect of the nuclear accident that forces strangers to stay together in a “sanctuary” in northwestern New Mexico two hours from the nearest motel: “The only good thing that can come from these silly emergencies, these rehearsals for the end of the world, is that it makes us get our act together.” Having arrived at a turning point in their own lives and being confined to a remote western place threatened by change, the characters search for lost ideals and develop a sense of community. They ponder over the past and peer into the future, their own and that of the American West, whose destinies are intertwined. Once again, they become pilgrims on America's mythical western pilgrimage.

In Angels Fall, Wilson paints a rather bleak picture of the West's future, the former land of promise. The apocalypse is around the corner in one of the backward parts of New Mexico, where mostly Indians live, some without “electricity or radio,” but all next to a uranium mine. As if to continue its nineteenth-century Indian policy, the government has selected the Indian reservations as the national “dump” in the nuclear age. Father Doherty, the parish priest, says:

They're trying to install a dump south of here. We're not going to let them get away with that. And over west are about seven mines and mills, and east of here the Rio Puerco goes awash with some kind of waste every few months, and of course there's the reactor at Los Alamos and the missile base down at White Sands, and all kinds of things are seeping into everyone's water.5

Not only do many Navahos and other local Indians drink radiated water, but they also work at the mines and, as a result, have one of the highest birth defect rates in the country. With this rather pessimistic “fusion” of the western past, present, and future, Wilson portrays the American West at yet another, possibly its final, breaking-point.

The West no longer sustains American hopes and dreams; as a matter of fact, “no one finds the place unless they're lost,” Father Doherty says. He himself, we hear, was “assigned” this parish because there was no other place to send him. Even before the roads closed, he was as stuck in New Mexico as some of the other captives assembled in the old adobe church. Marion Clay, gallery owner and widow of a famous regional artist, has always hated New Mexico, whose “romanticism” completely escapes her. And the brilliant Navaho doctor Don Tahaba betrays his people by planning to leave the reservation in order to accept a well-paid research job at Berkeley. By contrast, the eastern Professor Niles Harris renounces academia. Together with his wife, he is not just the only true passer-by in Angels Fall, but, as disillusioned eastern intellectual heading West, he is also a stock figure in the western holdup play.

What Mark Busby says about Angels Fall is true for all the western holdup plays—they examine the western present through the process of “unearthing” and “communicating” its past.6


As we have seen, its symbolic appeal defines the western holdup play. Structurally, it follows old formulas where strangers meet, though involuntarily, talk, and leave again, usually changed. In the western holdup play, they inevitably meet in rural, isolated western communities where the old West has not yet vanished, the new West not yet won. The anachronism of the holdup, whether due to natural or unnatural circumstances, reinforces the notion of the West in change as it recalls the closing of the frontier. So do the characters held up on their journey, a motley crew of old and new westerners as well as westering easterners. They all have arrived at crossroads in their lives, and they will have to change, for the western pilgrimage continues.


  1. Walter Kerr, “The Hazards and Pains Plaguing an Actor's Life,” The New York Times 3 Feb. 1983: C15.

  2. Ima Honaker Herron, The Small Town in American Drama (Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1969), 409.

  3. Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974), 197, 238.

  4. Turner, 208.

  5. Lanford Wilson, Angels Fall (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 16.

  6. Mark Busby, “Contemporary Western Drama,” A Literary History of the American West, ed. The Western Literature Association (Fort Worth: Texas Christian UP, 1987), 1238.

Johan Callens (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Callens, Johan. “When ‘The Center Cannot Hold’ or the Problem of Mediation in Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders.” In New Essays on American Drama, edited by Gilbert Debusscher and Henry I. Schvey, pp. 201-26. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Callens cites Wilson's The Mound Builders as an “existentialist inspired portrait of contemporary life.”]

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

(W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”)

The Mound Builders, was first produced by New York's Circle Repertory Company on February 2, 1975, under the guidance of Marshall W. Mason, Lanford Wilson's usual director. It could have been the simple story of how “The signing of an energy bill in Washington transforms rural areas into resorts.” But important archeological discoveries determined it otherwise.1 In Wilson's play the decision to build the Blue Shoals Dam in Southern Illinois indeed interferes with the excavation of remnants from the Early Mississippian Culture. The ensuing complications are enough to expand a commonplace idea—based on the true though partial destruction of the historical site of Cahokia by encroaching civilization—into an exceptional play, given, of course, the help of a good playwright who has for the occasion sharpened his pen into an etcher's needle.

To Chad Jasker, the landowner's son, the lake created by the dam cannot fill up fast enough, the new highway and interchange should have been there already, together with the hotels, motels, restaurants, tennis courts and golf course, so that the tourists can start to enjoy themselves and the money to pour in. Chad and his father have in fact made agreements with the developers about the percentage they ought to get on every dollar spent. The archeologists, however, Prof. August Howe and his assistant, Dr. Dan Loggins, for a fourth consecutive summer down at the site with their respective wives, Cynthia and Jean, are “racing time” against the lake. It has been a “sopping spring” and the summer rains do not let up, with the result that the water level is rising fast. To make things worse, August is saddled with his ailing sister, Delia, an itinerant writer whom he flew down from a Cleveland hospital where she was stranded, broke, and briefly suffering from amnesia.

Under these conditions work is not easy, but as long as the Jasker Village proves to be typical, the archeological team has grudgingly accepted that its excavation is to be a mere salvage operation. Yet once the grave of a God-King has been discovered—for the first time ever the atmosphere becomes more hectic and desperate. For the lake brooks no resistance, in contrast to the developers whom August had little trouble in warding off by appealing to a state law against public-funded construction defacing Indian monuments: “a brief report, a few pictures, and a phone call” (p. 133) is all it had taken him two years ago to have the legislature reroute the highway to the other side of the lake. The foresighted scientist could not foresee everything, though: through August's intervention, Chad sees his life's dream wiped out in an instant. As a result, the night after the great discovery, he takes off with the few artefacts already unearthed from the tomb, followed by Dan who caught him redhandedly, and runs a bulldozer over the site. The next morning both men have disappeared. Only an oar from Chad's boat is found floating near the center of the lake. Any efforts to find the men, however, remain unsuccessful.

These are the bare facts of a play that is presented as an extended recollection: while from his study in Urbana, Illinois, August is dictating into a tape-recorder comments on the slides from the expedition, past events materialize on stage. They do so intermittently, for every now and then the dramatic action is exchanged again for the illustrated narrative, which has the advantage of permitting jumps in time. The use of a narrator and of slides is no easy attempt on the part of a mainstream dramatist to reinforce one of his plays with Brechtian techniques and to pass it off as a docu-drama or modernist experiment.2 The slides certainly enliven the production and instruct the average spectator or layman about the nature of archeological fieldwork in general and about the Early Mississippian Culture in particular. Incidentally, when writing the play Wilson was assisted by Dr. Howard Winter from the Department of Anthropology of New York University. The speed with which the slides follow one another also influences the play's pace and never goes without any emotional impact: now their fast succession expresses August's anger and frustration (p. 28), now the uninterrupted accumulation of shots from the lake charges it with an ominous, symbolic power (p. 29). Yet, none of these is the slides' major function, which is that of leading up to the play's central problem, the mediation of reality. The frame establishes a distance between the present (February) and the layered past (immediate—the previous summer—or remote—the Mound Builders), between the nearby (Urbana) and the far away (Blue Shoals), an exemplary distance which the audience is never allowed to forget throughout the enacted sections of the play.

I say an “exemplary” distance because The Mound Builders is as much an exploration of the psychological tensions that arise when people from different professions and classes, and hence with different outlooks and convictions, are forced to live together under increasing pressures,3 as it is an investigation into the nature of reality and man's relation to it, carried out between the lines of the dialogue and through recurring metaphors. In this respect, archeology stands not just for the attempt to retrieve the past but for the quandary of reaching reality, whether past, present or future. In the highhanded jargon of philosophers, The Mound Builders touches upon the ontological issue (concerning the existence of reality) and the epistemological one (concerning our knowledge of reality). It is to Wilson's credit that he succeeds in translating these elevated issues into ordinary and intelligible terms without falsely and unduly simplifying them.

In Wilson's existentialist inspired portrait of contemporary life, reality is almost but not quite hopelessly fragmented, human existence alienated and devoid of a strong center that holds things together. Time is one culprit here: as soon as it has brought the future within easy reach, it carries it off again into the past. Frustrated as he is by this, man tries to hold on to present reality by reducing it to objects he can—so goes the illusion—rationally know and thus—double illusion—possess. The source of these two false assumptions lies in the early history of philosophy. It was Plato who in his allegory of the cave from the Republic (to which the frame alludes), turned reality into a figment of the human mind rather than something of which we are an integral part. Still, Plato never doubted the existence of the external world. By doubting even that, Descartes outstripped the Greek: his sceptical consciousness was the only thing he could be certain of. The gains of this radical exercise in critical awareness have been considerable in terms of scientific advances and man's manipulative power over the things his rational mind isolates from reality and subjects to scrutiny. Nevertheless, reason has caused a fissure between man and nature through which the essence of things may have slipped and which may have consolidated the limits of rational knowledge. Reality still holds many mysteries despite reason's grandiose claims to unveil them.4 Other endowments of which man is so proud are, in Wilson's view, equally problematic mediators of reality: memory is unreliable and the controversy about the relation between human language and reality is still raging. The few mechanical tools man has invented to aid him in the process of grasping or mediating reality also falter: tape-recorders and cameras distort. In the end, art, so often vilified by (abstract) scientists may prove its worth as a more intuitive and integral approach to reality. Art, Wilson is suggesting in and through this play, may help to understand the nature of the problem and offer a solution that is inspired by archeology as an empirical science, the ancient Mound Builders' way of life (as interpreted imaginatively by the playwright), and by existentialist philosophy: a Being rooted within the world. The profound pessimism of The Mound Builders is not due to Wilson's conviction that solutions to the alienation and disintegration of modern life do not exist, rather to his exasperation about man's refusal to see these solutions and put them into practice.

It immediately strikes the attention how alienated and divided Wilson's characters are. In this sense The Mound Builders satisfies the dramatist's long-standing attraction to misfits and deviants.5 There is, in the first place, Chad Jasker, the landowner's son. On the one hand, he is attracted to the archeologists—to the women to be sure, but also to the men for their education, intelligence and drive. On the other hand, he is repelled by their arrogance and facile breaches of trust. He admires their dedication but also annihilates their achievement. Delia, another outsider in the archeological group, represents an extreme case of modern alienation: she is a divorced woman, like a “nomad” (p. 110) always “in motion” (p. 42), and the author of a novel called Spindrift (p. 63). Her homelessness goes back to that moment when, aged seventeen, she left the parental house. Although that was long before August sold it, the sale is nonetheless symptomatic. In this house with its “Oak floors and old oak furniture” (p. 105) and its rooms full of light Delia must have felt rooted and inspired at the same time, an organic unity before her world-wide traveling and countless misfortunes turned her into a “dissipated” character (p. 16) without any sense of time and place. She ignores, e.g., how long she was kept at the hospital. (p. 17).

Dan is familiar with her feeling of disorientation because of a horrible fit of drunkenness, during which he ended up with his arms wrapped around a fire-alarm box as if it were his mother. This sad and grotesque picture of loneliness ends with the ironic and revelatory message on the fire-alarm box: “You must answer to get help” (p. 68). Had Dan known all the answers he would not have been in such dire straits. Like Delia he does not stand up well to the questions with which modern life confronts him (p. 55). In search of security he retreats from reality into alcohol, joints and an archeologist's dream. Whichever he chooses, alienation is the price he pays. Take the last of the three: a hard day's work on the site leaves Dan “dirty and mildly refractory,” the stage directions read (p. 18), i.e., tired and unresponsive, as well as “falling apart,” so to speak.

The general life-style of the archeologists is indeed conducive to a sense of personal fragmentation. Shuttling back and forth between home and the site, Cynthia has developed a feeling of schizophrenia (p. 39). It remains to be seen, though, whether her philandering with Chad will relieve the feeling, as it leads to her divorce from August. The tensions between the members of the team prevent us from calling it the “sort of cozily, scientific, cenobitic community” as Delia does (p. 20). It is more an “enclave” (p. 139) or “hothouse” (p. 106), an artificial environment breeding violent conflicts, death and disaster. In any case, Delia is right about the isolation in which the archeologists are operating: Jean realizes that conservators of the past are an “anachronism” from the viewpoint of the developers (p. 31) and in retrospect August compares the house at Blue Shoals to an ark tugged loose from its unstable moorings by the water flooding the valley (p. 14). The drama as a whole even appears as a Platonic vision of his “mind's eye,” concocted from the seclusion of his study and projected onto the back wall of the stage. Thus Wilson conveys the emotional, temporal and spatial estrangement of the archeologists' task in a world devoted to progress. Yet, even the play's token devotee of progress suffers from estrangement, which brings us back to the character we started with: Chad is already living on his “island” within the lake, his prospective wealth is a “fantasy” (p. 109) nurturing other, more romantic ones, such as the idea that he can seduce Jean with it. Chad is not just divided but as much as the others wrapped up in dreams, and therefore isolated. The disease of alienation is widespread, a generalized condition of contemporary life.

If we step back but a little from the characters' concrete experience of disjunction and deracination, we also notice the many thematic opposition pairs interwoven into the play and polarizing its substance. The structure, in its alternation of narrative and dramatic action and in the use of separate slides instead of an ongoing film, is also manifestly discontinuous. Nowhere, however, does the play approach the “facile scheme” Stanley Kauffmann claims it to be, “the mere filling-out of a pattern, step by overlong step.”6 The numerous secondary oppositions need not simply align themselves with the primary ones of past and present, archeologists and developers, specifying their meaning. It may be the case, as when Delia's childhood comes to stand for rootedness and her present life for alienation. More often, new polarities transpose the terms of the original ones and shift their sense. They may latch onto one of the initial poles, further breaking it down, or draw new configurations that bridge former contrasts. Depending on the viewpoint, then, the dualisms may be apparent or real. For instance, Dan and August are idealists acting for the benefit of Mankind, sacrificing their time and energy to Science and to the promotion of man's historical consciousness, whereas Chad, living in the present, is the materialist and opportunist eager for personal profit. This multi-faceted opposition is echoed in the images of the (greedy) hand and the (disinterested) eye. And yet, Chad generously saves Dan's life twice, whereas the archeologists are not immune to the fame and money which the discovery of a royal tomb can bring them or the Department. In the end, the value scales are reversed, the initial contrasts suffused and mitigated by parallels.

This is no proof of Wilson's inability to keep things distinct, or, as John J. O'Connor argues, of Wilson's reluctance to commit himself and follow through the implications of his material.7 The playwright first teases the audience into establishing clear-cut oppositions, then deliberately mixes the lines, mediates the poles. Cynthia, for instance, associates her hometown with a comfortable but cluttered and stifling life in “eleven rooms of memorabilia” (p. 39), the site with a primitive but free and sexually exciting one. So Urbana, Illinois, apparently comes to stand for modern urban civilization and the site for natural existence. However, we have already seen how artificial the situation of the archeologists on that site is. Moreover, Chad, from whom Cynthia derives her image of country life, definitely sides with the developers and urbanizers. It is no use trying the polarity of urban and natural life onto that of the present and past, either. The Mound Builders were farmers tied to their land, who also built the first permanent settlements, the precursors of modern cities. Cahokia, we are told (p. 47), outstripped Paris and London at the time.8

Another example of Wilson's working method is provided by the opposition of the religious past and the secular present. The Mound Builders honored the Gods in return for an abundant crop and protection against floods and wild animals. At present, the ancient gods are either dead or no longer worshipped, incapable or unwilling to protect people against floods. Science has superseded religion. Facts for faith, that, Delia insists, is our present condition (p. 54). But despite the decline of religion, there remains according to Dan (p. 22) and to Delia (p. 60) a need to dream and hope. The aspiration clumsily expresses itself in the brutal defacement of the ancient mounds and the erection of new structures such as the Blue Shoals Dam and recreation facilities: shrines to the modern idols of Progress and Leisure. From this it does not follow that Wilson conceives of his Mound Builders as devout innocents in comparison to our present-day vandals and desecrators of tombs (Chad as well as the archeologists). The cycle of destruction and construction must have functioned already in the days of the Early Mississippians, since they supplanted other cultures, as Wilson tells us (p. 53), when they arrived in the region now known as Southern Illinois. To think, therefore, that the shabby present is only a falling-away from the greatness of the past, is to jump to conclusions. The same holds for the reverse but equally simplistic assumption that history is the steady rise from savagery to civilization and culture, a view cherished by the rationalists.

The point of Wilson's hedging, amply illustrated in the foregoing paragraphs, is twofold: to demonstrate the complexity of reality and the ultimate failure of attempts to comprehend it through dualistic thinking. Reality defies regimentation into the straightjacket of binary sets such as idealism/materialism, city/country, religious/secular, progress/decay, or to mention the sets supplied by Delia and Cynthia: “those who hustle and those who don't,” “winners and losers, givers and takers,” “the quick and the dead” (p. 110). These antagonistic categories offer only partial insights—hustling, for instance, is a common and appropriate enough metaphor for our mercenary world—never the whole truth. “Chad tries to be among the quick” but fails, Delia resembles a zombie compared to the ebullient Dan but will survive him (p. 101). Dualistic thinking is in fact a manifestation of the analytical spirit which we inherited from the Greeks through Descartes and which now reigns almost unchallenged. Reason is the supreme God of our age, the computer, its idol whose artificial mind operating with zeroes and ones only, is modeled after human intelligence at its worst. Unless checked and corrected, reason's sifting and searching may lead to total fragmentation and meaninglessness.

August suffers badly from an extreme rationalism. One of his personal notes reads:

Separate personal from professional. Discard personal. Separate separate from separate; separate personal from imaginary, illusion from family, ancient from contemporary, etc., if possible. Organize if possible and separate if possible from impossible. Catalogue what shards remain from the dig; celebrate separation; also, organize (a) brain, (b) photographic material, (c) letter of resignation, (d) health, (e) budget, (f) family, (f-1) family ties, (g) life. Not necessarily in that order.

(pp. 36-37)

This sample of rational thought is rather confusing, to say the least. It confirms that the play's formal discontinuity is partially due to August's chaotic mind. In the absence of interpretative links, taxonomies and lists of loose facts do not add up to a meaningful whole. Your “thinking machine” will tell you as much: “You feed it all into a computer,” Delia tells Jean, “all the facts and fancies the doctors have printed or typed or brushed and the computer would print out NOTHING APPLIES. It doesn't scan” (p. 54). Reason's proper means of unification are deficient. Even the sacrosanct cause-and-effect by which Delia characterizes rational thought, may be, as Hume maintains, a matter of the reported and haphazard concurrence of separate events, rather than, of a logically necessary connection. To a rational mind like August's, reality is a collection of objects (“eleven rooms of memorabilia”) or else appears muddled and uncertain, at times disturbingly so, at times ludicrously: among the eight girls assisting Dan there is one “presumed” male, all of them are “alleged” students and now that Cynthia's sleeping around has been divulged, Kirsten is an “Alleged” daughter (p. 13). Of course, these qualifiers may be simply interpreted as cynical markers of August's spite or embitterment but thematically they go beyond immediate character psychology.

Jean's story of her experience as a twelve-year old spelling bee champion directly correlates excessive analysis and nagging doubts about reality. The contests taught her many new words (quantitative knowledge) and how to spell them (analytical knowledge) but too many of them caused her to have a nervous breakdown. Jean could not stop: every word that was said to her, she spelled in her head. The meaning of sentences dissolved as she reduced them to words, syllables and letters. By the same token, the familiar world rarefied into similar and equally elusive Platonic universals:

there were days when the world and its objects separated, disintegrated into their cellular structure, molecular—worse—into their atomic structure. And nothing held its form. The air was the same as the trees and a table was no more substantial than the lady sitting at it …

(p. 56)

Systematic, frontal attacks on reality such as August's and Jean's, are bound to end in failure. In Spindrift, Delia, too, approached reality the wrong way so that it kept retreating, never yielding its secrets. She set herself, in all reasonableness

a simple problem and tried to solve it. Write a Chinese puzzle box. Write a Russian doll. A box within a box within a box within a box. Every time something was solved, within the solution was another problem, and within the solving of the second riddle another question arose. And when that riddle was unwound there was still a knot. And you know why I failed? For me? Because either a Chinese puzzle box must go on ad infinitum or there must finally be a last box. And when that box is opened, something must finally be in it. Something simple like maybe an answer. Or a fact, since we all seem to be compulsive compilers.

(p. 102)

This is not the only occasion on which Delia vents her frustration about the limits of human knowledge. Earlier she admitted ignoring the answer to most existential problems (p. 55), which explains why she hates the complacent smiles of Indian deities, looking as if they knew all the solutions (p. 86). And during her stay at the hospital she briefly forgot her identity, an occurrence that symbolizes, rather bluntly, modern man's restricted self-knowledge as well as his loss of personality. Actually, Wilson instills in his audience a personal feeling of ignorance and uncertainty while making these explicit as themes. By withholding facts about his characters until late in the play and by the piecemeal giving away of historical information about the Early Mississippian Culture, he is not just keeping his plot lively enough to hold his audience, or lapsing into didacticism. Delia learns only at the end of Act I that Chad saved Dan's life (p. 81). Still later Dan finds out that Delia had started, though never finished, a third novel (p. 103), and both characters are surprised to hear that, around the year 1100, “Parakeets were as common in Illinois as the sparrow is now” (p. 108), which makes Delia conclude that there are “Some things we don't know.” With this very formula Dan had initially reproached Delia for assuming that Chad “had something on him” (p. 81). Without complete knowledge, which we will never attain, judgments, Wilson implies, will always appear somewhat premature, a matter of suppositions that require constant revision. It is only normal then that the play leaves some questions unanswered. Did Dan try to save the excavation and retrieve the artefacts but drown in the attempt? Or was he murdered? Perhaps he caused Chad's death or else Chad killed himself? These are some of the questions that must preoccupy the audience. For Jean, shattered as she is by the immense loss, these questions have been superseded by others, such as:

Why did [Dan] go out? Why didn't someone hear him? Why did the girls stay at the motel? WHY DID HE HAVE TO HEAR NOISES IN THE NIGHT? WHY DID HE TRUST PEOPLE? WHY DID HE BELIEVE IN THINGS?

(p. 146)

All these questions can be summed up into the one and only “Why did it have to happen to my husband?”

Wilson approaches the problem of the elusiveness of truth and reality not only from the angle of reason or rational knowledge but also from that of language. To some extent, this is like begging the question since logic and logos are etymologically related. Man is a being of logic and language, so the shortcomings of the one may be those of the other. Perhaps Wilson has even given us a clue to the parallel in “Loggins,” the family name of Dan and Jean, two scientists, the former an archeologist, the latter a gynecologist. Historically, the claims made for language have certainly been as high as those made for reason. In primitive cultures words are often invested with the power to conjure up reality. The superstition survived the advent of Christianity through the Bible, the Christian God's incarnation on earth. Does not the opening of St. John's Gospel read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God?” For children language has always amounted to ontological proof: the eleven-year old Kirsten considers the presences in her dream real enough—not just the “shadows” August calls them—because they were “talking” (p. 15). Even Wilson's adults believe in the incantatory effect of the language. Delia fears that prophecies and especially evil curses make things happen (p. 59). Although Jean has been pregnant for some time now, she and her husband still have not come up with a name. After Jean's two former miscarriages they refuse to anticipate events (pp. 126-27). Naming the unborn child would be equal to assuming its existence and suffering its eventual loss like the death of a physical presence.

The playwright here touches upon the dilemma of the chicken and the egg. Which comes first, language or reality? Are words invented to arbitrarily denote pre-existing realities or do things exist by the grace of language? The evidence in The Mound Builders points in opposite directions. Sometimes reality takes after words/language/literature. Dan is called Pollyandy for his naively optimistic and benevolent character (p. 95), which is a generally forgotten reference to Eleanor Porter's novel Pollyanna (1913). Delia occasionally allows herself “to cause a brawl or pass out in the middle of the ring because [she] knew it was good for the biographer” (p. 112). “The signing of an energy bill in Washington [often enough] transform[s] rural areas into resorts—fieldhands into busboys” (p. 38), though not in this play. Sometimes language flatly ignores reality or truth. August scornfully labels a slide of Cynthia “Horse,” alluding to his comment on the previous slide, bathers at the lake involved in “Horse play” (p. 13). And Delia glibly purports to “know all the answers” but none “of the questions” (pp. 54-55) because it sounds so good. She knows “It's a lie, but it's neat.” Words do seem to have a life and mind of their own. Unfortunately they can be trapped in their proper sphere against their will.

Writing can be a self-generating, autonomous activity of one book leading to the next without much affecting the world for all its efforts. Among intellectuals like Dr. Landau, Dan's American Literature Professor at College, Delia's novel, Spindrift, caused a ripple or two but the “neat, sweet, meek” secretary who typed the manuscript remained very composed when confronted with this chronicle of despair (p. 65). She is unlike the typist in Truffaut's L'homme qui aimait les femmes who staunchly refused to finish the story of the protagonist's debaucheries. At the beginning of The Mound Builders August tests the tape-recorder with the word, “The quick gray fox jumped over” suddenly forgets the remainder of the line used to check the keys of a typewriter, and concludes with “whatever it was that the quick gray fox jumped over” (p. 7). In this particular case the referential value of language is nihil, its circularity total. The same applies, so to speak, to dictionaries, tautological closed systems, in which words refer to other words, without coming to terms with reality. Jean's spelling bees gave her just that, the abstract knowledge of a dictionary (p. 55).

Wilson's preoccupation with the ambivalent status of language with regard to reality explains, to me, the presence of aphorisms within the play and the relevance of establishing their difference from axioms. The dictionary—that flawed but handy tool—tells us an aphorism is either a “concise statement of a principle” or “a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment.” Chad calls it “a saying that tells you how to judge” (p. 70). In other words, it has a practical value to him, derived from experience. According to the aphorism “Beer on whiskey—Mighty risk. Whiskey on beer, never fear” (p. 71) he and Dan need not worry about topping the many beers they have had with a shot of whiskey. Still, Dan is afraid it might kill them because they have already had too many beers. And he is right, the point being that aphorisms convey relative truths as opposed to the absolute truths of axioms. Chad insists that the thing he is looking for is not an axiom (p. 71), i.e. “a maxim widely accepted on its intrinsic merits” or “a proposition regarded as a self-evident truth, a postulate,” namely something that foregoes the test of reality. The reason why people use aphorisms is that they provide a sense of superior wisdom and some grip on reality and its unpredictability. Those who do not heed them at all, are clearly in the wrong. The old Chinese proverb—“If you save someone from drowning you're responsible for them for the rest of their life” (p. 86)—should have warned Dan about Chad's prerogatives with regard to him and his life's dream. Strictly speaking aphorisms and proverbs may deceive, yet their practical knowledge at least has the advantage of bearing the stamp of reality as opposed to purely abstract knowledge. Thus, Cynthia parries Delia's reproach of dropping August in favour of Chad—“You're paying the gold of the realm for bazaar merchandise”—with the words “All that glitters … [is not gold]” (p. 111). She happens to know August as a husband from first-hand experience whereas Delia can only presume what he is like as a husband from having known him as a brother.

Archeology is an empirical science facing the problems of man's limited knowledge and of an uncertain, fleeting reality in acute form because it deals with the past. Most of Wilson's plays deal with the past or the passage of time and how one must cope with it in order to make the present bearable and to guarantee a future.9 But only in The Mound Builders did the playwright hit upon such a suggestive and eloquent metaphor for this concern, namely archeology. Its activity represents on a grand scale the human condition, characterized as it is by the (futile) attempt to retrieve one's personal past, to possess oneself totally. Indeed, the temporality of human existence is offering the archeologists a life task as well as thwarting it. For this reason only, and not just because the man-made lake is inundating the area and threatening the excavation, The Mound Builders is already enacted under the sign of the “passing” (p. 113) and “unstable” (p. 84) moon, that symbol of transience which is featured on separate slides (p. 69). No wonder life feels like an insubstantial dream. According to August “We do not allow ourselves”—and Time often does not permit us—” to dream of finding what we might find and dream every sweep of a trowel” (p. 113). Human civilizations do tend to disappear. They might not vanish entirely, “without a trace,” corresponding to Delia's pessimistic forebodings, yet they do tend to perish. August's fatalism with regard to his personal past (p. 105) surely influences his attitude towards his archeological endeavours (p. 113) and vice versa. The hope and joy of small discoveries and retrievals—an image or emotion, a bone awl or mask—must constantly jar with the feeling that too much has “vanished without a trace” (p. 106), like “water under the bridge” (p. 105).

So despite the fieldwork and the palpable evidence collected, archeology remains to a large extent a speculative business, as gets illustrated with the golden mask of the God-king. Says Dan, “It's a death mask—we guess. It might have had feathers around it here. We have to guess. We've never seen anything like it before” (p. 121, italics added). Considering all the imponderabilities, some claims sound rather strange, like August's about the bone awl: “We have no clear idea what the bone awl was actually used for, but it was undoubtedly used for something. This is a particularly good one” (p. 108). I suppose “good” means “well-preserved” and not “good at doing whatever it was made for.” Still, the ambiguity remains and elicits a smile. It is a disturbed smile because from August's utilitarian viewpoint, a view which weathered times remarkably well given the primitive belief that the being of a thing lies in its use, the bone awl is a dead and meaningless object. The life and soul has left the sediments of the past when archeologists find them. After the wrecked expedition, August admits with resignation that “A great amount of work has been done on the early cultures of North America and we have found only the periphery of the culture” (p. 113). For all we know, there might no longer be a center, as with the gold-decorated beads of which the wooden core has disintegrated (p. 118). The center may forever elude the archeologists. Somehow we get the feeling that exposing the royal tomb to the light of day and publicity has caused its disappearance. This reminds us of the frescoes in Fellini's Roma. Constant light and atmospheric conditions preserved them in a perfect state for centuries. But their exposure to the sun and fresh air during excavations for the subway has made them fade immediately. The same happens with the pictures Cynthia took of the artefacts. In an act of compassion for Chad, who had been cruelly deceived by Dan and August, she destroys the crucial evidence by exposing the film.

It is not so certain, though, that the pictures, had they been saved, would have been of much help. After all, they are only reflections of a bygone reality, unsuccessful attempts at fixing it, confirming in their function of mementoes time and reality's passing.” All photographs are memento mori,” says Susan Sontag.10 The pictures of the tomb should have served as evidence of the discovery but they would only have shown what was no longer attainable. The thousand photographs of Kirsten as a baby could not prevent her from growing up nor can they bring back the baby she used to be (p. 53). The photo of Dan wearing the death mask must be a meagre consolation to his wife. In retrospect that picture may even, metaphorically speaking, have consolidated Dan's death. Remember primitives refuse to have pictures taken of them lest their souls be stolen. Photographs “trans-fix” living reality while reproducing it. The equivocal nature also explains Delia's contempt for the genius of Rank, the British inventor of the copy machine and a movie mogul, though in her eyes a peddler in gross lies and illusions (p. 54). Movies, copies and photographs give man the illusion of an objectified reality that can be appropriated and manipulated. A similar deception is worked by the slides of the expedition. Of course, August's subjectivity adds to the problem with these slides. Through the unreliability of his memory he may accidentally get a few facts wrong or personal feelings may color his comments. Thus objective and subjective comments alternate, at times even fuse, as when August moves from “slides of need” to “slides of spear points” (p. 113). The tape-recorder fails to neutralize the human distortion. On the contrary, it fastens and compounds it by mechanical means. To tell the truth, no matter how trustworthy August is, the dice have been loaded from the start, since the slides were taken by Cynthia. Surely he cannot always fathom the meaning certain shots had for her.

Photographs slides, movies, Xerox-copies, and audio-tapes: all these material products of inventions made by the rational mind function in The Mound Builders as flawed mediators of reality and truth, examples of perfunctory reproduction vastly inferior to creative visions. This is at least the opinion of Delia, the exemplary artist and visionary of Wilson's play. It is an opinion she metaphorically extends to matrimonial affairs. As long as wives are satisfied with being the trapped “reflections” of the men who have assumed the responsibility for a family, Delia believes they will be a “sad old” lot. If she briefly thinks that some “women are wonderful,” we may assume it is because these come closer to Sartre's cruel but more truthful “miroir aux allouettes” than to so-called bona fide mirrors. As for Delia herself, once she had conquered “the anxiety to please” her husband, that “strong, hirsute, sweating, horny cocksman” selling “drilling equipment” (p. 41), she managed to divorce him. As a visionary she could no longer reflect the image he had of himself.

And Delia is a visionary, Cynthia's sight is impaired by a blind spot (p. 37), perhaps because she ignores that August has the government reroute the highway. Dan knows all about archeology but confesses to an “absolute blind spot in folklore” (p. 70), which goes to show how one-sided scientists specialized in one field can be. Only Delia has enough “eyes in [her] head” (p. 41) to carry the honors of being an artist. She is the “Gorgon” whose glare can turn people into stone (p. 40). Her illness has even given her, we are told with sarcasm (p. 59), the haggard outlook of a soothsayer. After the death of her father, a physiologist who had written a book on vision, Delia's inspiration flagged and she stopped reading or writing books. Yet, like a contemporary palmist she kept reading the graffiti on the wall. Like an archeologist of the human mind she kept searching for the truth in “dreams and nightmares” (p. 84), chasing “that graceful, trim, and dangerous leviathan in the cold depths of some uncharted secret currents where the sun has never warmed the shadows” (p. 104). If artistic visions excel artificial duplications it is because they go beneath bland and glossy surfaces to reveal hidden truths, or better to forge them in the smithy of reality with the help of the imagination. Because of this revelatory and (re)creative power, artistic visions possess far more truthfulness and substantiality than mere mechanical reflections.

However, as with the contrasts mentioned earlier, the one between “reflections” and “visions” is not always as radical as might be expected from Delia's remarks. Art photography and art movies are valid forms of artistic expression, too, giving full scope to human creativity and inventiveness. At present artistic experimentation with color copiers has even begun. Incidentally, the invention of such machines requires creativity as well as rational thought. And the representational value of (post)modern art may be larger than supposed, given the fact that it imitates, to some extent, a world which is continuously shifting and recreating itself.11 Although Wilson does not resort to these examples, he nonetheless remains true to his method of reconciling oppositions set up by his characters.

Dan wants Delia to write a “fictionalized” account of the great discovery to prove that it has not been “faked” (p. 120). So long as this account offers to be no more than a servile “reflection,” corroboration or propaganda adding to the archeologists' glory, Delia shows no interest. Once she realizes the opportunities for ingeniously exposing the intrigues behind the entreprise, she rises to the occasion (p. 135). (We have every reason to believe that Wilson took over Delia's project.) Whereas an objective and factual journalistic or photographic report may “cover” the events (in both possible senses), a subjective literary rendition, in other words a more direct falsification may “uncover” the truth beneath them. Art may well be the lie that discloses the truth. The accomplished artist does not jeopardize truth by bluntly exposing it, as the archeologists do with the royal tomb in this play.12 He or she provides a favorable and fertile environment for deeper truths to inhabit and develop in, whereas (abstract) scientists often scare or impale them with the light of reason. Instead of tackling reality with the orderliness and directness of rational minds, great artists approach it in a stealthy, round-about and more intuitive manner. As Jerry says in Albee's Zoo Story: “Sometimes it is necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” Success is never guaranteed, though, for the artist's vision can become blurred by drugs, like Delia's when she was traveling through the exotic landscapes of “Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Metaxa, Ouzo, Grappa, Cinzano …” (p. 42).

August believes archeology can survive without art lending it a hand (p. 120). No sooner has Delia informed him of her renewed desire to write than he advises her to leave (p. 135). Irony number one: had she, the artist, been around, she could have prevented Chad from stealing the artefacts. Irony number two: many relics of the vaunted God-King are jewels and ornaments, i. e., art objects. They have long survived the person or culture they belonged to. Art, Wilson here suggests, is a substantial form of truth, whatever neo-Platonists may say to the contrary. But he subtly qualifies his claim by picking as pièce de résistance a fragile golden mask, the reflection or shadow of its owner's face. And he further mediates the contrast between archeology and art by having Dan ask that we use our imagination, the artistic faculty par excellence, and picture the death mask surrounded by feathers (p. 122). It is symptomatic that Dan, the one to recognize the role the imagination can play in the sciences, replies to Delia's reproach of scientists for their immoderate analysis and compulsive compilation of loose facts: “Not of themselves—in association. Where are they? Why are they there?” (p. 102), for the imagination is invaluable in tying things up again. It is the faculty with which to reconstruct and interpret the past and to survive the future (p. 107), the divine gift that allows man to defy mortality and restore the continuum of time: “Not marble nor the guilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this pow'rfull rhyme,” etc …

In any case, with regard to the art objects from the Early Mississippian Culture, August overstates the common attack against aesthetics and the brainless “representatives of the humanities ransacking anthropological collections for pots they find pleasingly shaped and carrying them off to museums, where they lecture without content on form—and without the least anthropological information or understanding” (pp. 112-113). His own utilitarianism has its drawbacks, too, witness the havoc it caused in the history of the West, which includes, ironically, the destruction of large parts of our archeological heritage. The one occasion on which August has recourse to the imagination, he lapses into fancifulness. In his mind's eye “the river's currents swept the house before it as a great brown flood bears off everything in its path.” Reality proves less spectacular: “The lake had risen to half-cover the house. Much of the second level was above the water. The house looked more scuttled than inundated” (p. 146).

As mentioned, the entire play is actually a vision originating from August's mind. Wilson's mediation here borders on confusion when we realize that Delia, the artist, shares her brother's visionary faculty. From her father's “diagrams of the eye with the retina and rods and cones and iris and lens and those lines projected out into space indicating sight,” it appears to Delia “that rather than the eye being a muscle that collects light those beams indicated that the eye projects vision onto the outside” (p. 58). But unlike August, who spends most of his time in the seclusion of his study—the sight of the “august” Professor “with a trowel in his hand” (p. 92) or “up to his ass in the mud” (p. 115) is rather uncommon, we are told—Delia until recently totally immersed herself in life's currents. This contrast between isolation and immersion is seen at its tightest if we compare Delia's father, an erudite man with a hatred for practising physicians, writing theoretical works on medicine in the peace and quiet of his great Victorian house, with Jean who gets her kicks from the hectic work at the university clinic (p. 60). In August and Delia these two extremes of isolation and immersion are associated through the image of vision and with the purpose of stressing how detrimental and alienating both are. August's retreat into his private shell after the wrecked expedition—he divorces Cynthia and resigns from his job—is as bad as Delia's former immersion, for she “went down” (p. 104) into “the liquid world” to the point of “drowning” (p. 43). For both characters the external world loses its foundation and solidity. Neither can tell in the end whether it exists outside or inside their head.

As befits the central thesis of this article, Wilson's solution to the excrescences of total isolation and immersion lies somewhere in between. In this respect the Mound Builders' way of life acquires symbolic significance. I repeat that Wilson nowhere nostalgically idealizes the past, notwithstanding Dan's childish vision of Cochise taming wild animals and of wolves gently muzzling at his thighs (p. 107). From the play we learn that the Mound Builders fought, built fortifications, kept slaves and sacrificed people in honor of deceased Kings. Nevertheless, in some respects the Early Mississippian Culture, as depicted by Wilson, presents a more balanced, less alienated and fragmented life than the one modern man is leading.

We have said earlier that the Early Mississippian Culture was partly agricultural, partly urban. The land as major means of subsistence was still respected, not just possessed and exploited as real estate. The settlements in all likelihood permitted a safer life than present-day New York City (p. 67). For some reason—historical or other—the Mound Builders receive the epithet “muck-a-muck,” muck being “filth, manure” as well as “material removed in excavations.” It is a clear indication of Wilson's intention to convey their rootedness in the earth, which did not prevent them from building mounds out of aspiration for something higher. To Dan these mounds also betray a sense of tradition or rootedness in the past and foresightedness (p. 22), in other words, a sense of continuity which modern man hooked on immediacy and impermanency may have lost. The epithet “muck-a-muck” sounds like a permanent reminder of man's earthly origin and destination, a mark of humility contrasting sharply with today's Faustian striving. The dominant tone in the Early Mississippian Culture must have been set by the anonymous Aztec poem Dan quotes:

Here are our precious flowers and songs
May our friends delight in them,
May the sadness fade out of our hearts.
This earth is only lent to us.
We shall have to leave our fine work.
We shall have to leave our beautiful flowers.
That is why I am sad as I sing for the sun.

(p. 52)

In that remote past art still succeeded in checking blind human pride an untrammeled (scientific) progress. Like life in general art still obeyed “the dictates of nature,” the way Yeats wanted it to, and Wilson, too, as Gautam Dasgupta observed.13

The social organization of the Natchez, the last of the Mound Builders, is also instructive. They were an “upward-mobile” matriarchal society in which the highest classes of the “Suns,” “Nobles” and “Honored Men” had to marry into the lowest one of the “Stinkards” (p. 84). Thus the elevated and low were joined. Also, it is to be expected that in a matriarchate the female sex was better off than in our male-dominated modern western society where intelligent women are still considered exceptions to the rule: “We're all freaks—all us bright sisters,” says Delia (p. 56).14 She is the militant defender of women's rights, including that of making a fool of herself (p. 64), which is always better than to be exploited as a sexual object, like “a virgin to distract the horny unicorn” (p. 67). By referring to the matriarchal organization of the Mound Builders, Wilson is not necessarily advocating a simple power transfer from men to women. Rather, he is making his audience aware of the one-sidedness and restraints of the present, patriarchal situation by confronting it with its opposite, in order to convey the possible diversity of an eventual social organization in which men and women can claim their rights.

Wilson's criticism of contemporary society, as well as the alternative he briefly sketches, partly by imaginatively bringing to life a lost Amerindian culture, seems inspired a great deal by existentialism. Alienation of the self from the roots of Being, the feeling of absurdity overwhelming and paralyzing man, the decline of religion, the lopsided flowering of Rationalism at the expense of more intuitive values, the destructiveness and present-orientedness of modern civilization as opposed to the awareness of human transience and death resulting in a commitment to the continuity of life: all these aspects figure prominently in existentialist analyses of modern life and in The Mound Builders.

With regard to the existentialist influence, Wilson drops several hints, the most obvious one being the reference to Camus' The Plague (p. 40), which is ingeniously transformed into an extra reference to Sartre's The Flies by an apparently innocent realistic touch. When staying at Oran, Algeria, “Camus's model for the locus in quo of The Plague,” Delia was “host to every fly on the Mediterranean” (p. 40). Like Sartre's hero she believes in assuming the responsibility for her own existence. The perspective that her creed—“Nobody owes their life to anybody” (p. 81)—opens up, is severely curtailed, though, by her double assurance that spiritually speaking man “still crawls on its belly like a reptile.” (p. 101) And that he is utterly transient (p. 106). Temporality is the constitutive characteristic of human being which Heidegger has made much of in his monumental Being and Time (1927). In the face of death, which is to say of human finitude, one may easily lose heart, like August. His final attitude is one of total indifference and resignation: whether Dianne, his secretary, types up his comments or goes out to lunch, does not matter (p. 7), for he feels like having wasted all his energy in a senseless “salvage operation from which was salvaged nothing” (p. 113). The word “nothing” is repeated seven times, which reminds us of Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” with its proliferation of “nadas.” Hemingway's answer to Nothingness was a personal code of valor, the thrill and security of ritual action: fishing, hunting, or bull-fighting. Dan and Chad's fishing party—that brief, moonlit moment of male companionship and communion with nature—may well be an allusion to Hemingway, besides being, no doubt, one of the many anticipations of their deaths with which the play is studded and which color it with impending doom. It is also an indication that the play never deteriorates into cheap sentimentality as Edith Oliver claims.15

Actually, the playwright's view of his subject and of contemporary life is too bleak to permit such lapses. Existentialism has frequently been accused of pessimism, even morbidity,16 and The Mound Builders seems to suffer from the same defect. There is a real demolition job going on: no dream or illusion is allowed to remain standing, whether it is Chad's dream of riches, the archeologists' hope of contributing to history or Delia's conviction that her father cared for and respected her work (p. 136). Like Delia, Wilson seems to be “checking off the possibilities of the species” (p. 102). Her apocalyptic vision of the future, at the end of Act I, leaves little to be enthusiastic about:

You know how the world ends? You know what the “with a whimper” is? A sad old world of widows: wizened old women, lined up on beaches along all the Southern coastlines looking out over the water and trying to keep warm. (Beat.) Good Lord. That sounds so horribly right I'll bet it's prophetic. The species crawls up out of the warm ocean for a few million years and crawls back to it again to die.

(p. 88)

The prophecy is almost born out at the end of the play when the three women are sitting in the house on the border of the lake, waiting—in vain, Cynthia harshly insists—for the divers to find Chad's and Dan's bodies. And as if this visual image is not nihilistic enough, Wilson crowns it with August's weak appeal to his secretary before becoming speechless, while the tape-recorder continues to turn, and silence, as in Krapp's Last Tape, takes over.

The desolation of this finale is so absolute and devastating that the few positive and future-oriented notes tend to be swallowed by the void. Upon closer inspection the play—like most of Wilson's17—indeed possesses a comic orientation. It may seem less open-ended than usual but some questions are left dangling. The Biblical connotations of the flood goad us into expecting a new beginning, though persevering pessimists may add that, this time, the water may never retreat to allow for such a beginning.18 These pessimists may have hit the mark because, according to Maturin Le Petit, the French Jesuit, those Natchez who during their life had violated the laws of the chiefdom, were chastized after death by being cast “upon lands unfruitful and entirely covered with water.”19 Still, Jean carries Dan's baby and it is due for “December, January” (p. 169), a date that also suggests a rebirth. Again, our pessimist may retort that Jean's “history” of miscarriages augurs ill, together with her feeling of “blinding damnation,” of having “fallen from grace” after she had told Dan about her pregnancy, as if she had “breached a covenant” between her and the baby (p. 50). Still, life continues, even if it takes courage and sacrifices.20 Remarkably enough it is Delia who sets the example, her moral strength and resolve to write another book have revitalized her. The burden of Jean's body now feels like nothing to her (p. 147). There is still hope for the two of them who believe in starting another life, if only one cares enough: Delia has a capacity for “dying” and hence being reborn (p. 10) and Jean doubts that one lives only once (p. 30). Both women are ultimately on the side of the living: Jean as a gynecologist, Delia as a writer not much given to “In Memoriam[s]” (p. 103). Actually, all the women, including the bitterly realistic Cynthia, exemplify the human capacity for endurance and commitment to life. There is a definitely Chekhovian touch when August, returning from his office with Dan, interrupts Cynthia's recollection of the “miracle” of pregnancy with the words, “But that has nothing to do with us” (p. 50), by which Wilson seems to imply that women may be better equipped than men to apprehend the mystery of life. For all his hedging Wilson does not escape the association, pervasive since the Greeks, of the feminine with (passive) nature and of the male with (active) reason.21

In The Mound Builders Lanford Wilson set the stakes very high. The reviewers at the time agreed about this, except for Edith Oliver who gave the play short shrift as a “dim and insubstantial piece.”22 These reviewers also agreed about Wilson's relative failure to fulfill the expectations raised by the play.23 O'Connor called it Wilson's “most ambitious” work to date but “also one of his more disappointing efforts”24. And Kauffmann scathingly reproached Wilson for having remained the “ambitious undergraduate pouring out promising scripts for his professor of playwriting.”25 Clurman diagnosed the main problem as follows: “The play's idea is provocative and unmistakably felt. What weakens it is that many of its details are diffuse and ill-digested. The dialogue is heaped pell-mell with sundry reflections that do not establish their relevance to the whole.”26 Reflections that do not immediately establish their relevance, would have been closer to the truth, since a close reading of the play does reveal an underlying thematic unity. Actually, Clurman charges the playwright with no less than the failure to fuse the disparate elements into an organic whole. This is a serious charge, the more so since it is raised against a play about the problem of mediation: mediation between different views; between past, present and future; between abstract contemplation and sense perception, utilitarianism and aestheticism; Science and Art; between the analytical and differentiating power of Reason and the synthetic and (re)creative power of the Imagination. Truth seems better served, reality more easily apprehended in the twilight zone where these so-called opposites meet.

In this sense Wilson's view approaches the classical ideal of a balance between different faculties. With regard to Foucault's distinction between the organizing principles of thought operating in Western Culture, Wilson seems to favor a partial return to the classical “épistème” in which knowledge is a matter of discovering correspondences, away from the modern Cartesian one in which knowledge equals discrimination and the establishment of differences. By extension the classical ideal also calls for thinking engaged within the world, and not imposed upon a world conceived as separate from the mind. This is in keeping with Wilson's existentialist inclination. An important clue to Wilson's classical world view is his Baroque conviction that life is a text, a dream (p. 58) and that the world is inseparable from the words used to interpret it.27 That also seems to resolve the language issue of the play. If Wilson did not believe in the power of words to affect reality, there would be little use in his writing any further.

When leveling the charge of incoherence against The Mound Builders, critics forget one crucial point: that, as in The Rimers of Eldritch, Wilson may not have wanted to create a harmonious whole without further ado.28 He presents the drama through August's mind, a mind thoroughly disturbed by the wrecked expedition and driven by its consequences into isolation from the sensory world, into reasoning and reminiscing about the past.29 Even before the disaster, August proved, as we saw, an unbalanced character, dwelling in “eleven rooms of memorabilia” and neglecting the empirical side of his profession. The formal discontinuity due to the narrator's intervention is mirrored by the other characters' alienation and by the different views expounded. This double exemplification of fragmentation—that of the play and that within the play—demonstrates the problematic nature of mediation much more convincingly than if Wilson had merely posited it.

The other charges frequently made against The Mound Builders or its author—that of sententiousness, poor characterization, or lack of originality—may equally be accounted for, if not refuted.30 Wilson's love of language occasionally exceeds the boundaries of his realistic mode, despite the fact that, in other plays, the language has often been lyrical. But many a sententious line is uttered by Delia, the writer in residence, and is, therefore, in character. Moreover, the aphoristic quality of the writing is relevant to the opposition between practical and theoretical knowledge. The thematic burden of the play probably explains why less effort went into the characterization. With regard to Wilson's originality or lack of it the name most often dropped is that of Tennessee Williams. It may be useful to recall that Wilson adapted Summer and Smoke and the short story, “One Arm,” for the screen. He even co-authored with Williams the script for The Migrants. Such a collaboration may betray an affinity of both writers' “idea of the theater” but as might be expected in such cases, the lesser figure is bound to be accused of profiting from the greater one. I have no doubt about who the greater playwright is. For any writer working in the same mode as Williams to break away entirely from his pervasive influence on post-war American drama may nearly be impossible. The universality of Wilson's theme in The Mound Builders belittles, however, criticisms about his so-called gift for “Sincere Imitation.”


  1. Lanford Wilson, The Mound Builders (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), p. 35. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  2. Narrators presenting and commenting upon the dramatic action are a staple in Wilson's plays, take Lemon Sky, The Sand Castle, The Family Continues, Talley and Son, and Talley's Folly. In the latter, the actor playing Matt Friedman even surveys in a very Brechtian way the theater's technical facilities before getting on with the play. By emphasizing the fiction, Wilson not only expresses his love for the theater, for “play as playfulness,” as Arthur Sainor argues in Contemporary Dramatists, ed. James Vinson (London: St. James Press; N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1973), p. 832, but he also invites his audience to be critical about it. In The Mound Builders, however, the narrator does not pierce the dramatic illusion, though the play still attests to Wilson's belief in the essential similarity between theater or art and life. See my conclusion and Gautam Dasgupta, “Lanford Wilson” in Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta, American Playwrights. A Critical Survey, I (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981), pp. 30,35. The fictitiousness of reality obviously fits Wilson's larger ontological concern in this play.

  3. Because of its heterogeneous cast of characters assembled in one location, a microcosm of American society, John Steven Paul labels The Hot l Baltimore—and he could have added The Mound Builders, 5th of July, Angels Fall, etc.—a “melting pot” play (“Who Are You? Who Are We? Two Questions Raised in Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly,Cresset, 43 (Sept. 1980), pp. 26-27). The term minimalizes the dramatic conflict on which the play(s) thrive(s) and conveys too much the false impression that a harmonious intercourse or mediation is achieved.

  4. My historical presentation of the problems Wilson deals with owes a lot to William Barrett, Irrational Man. A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1962 & 1958), especially pp. 216-18, 230-32.

  5. It is a mystery to me why Ruby Cohn omitted The Mound Builders from her survey in American Dramatists: 1960-1980 (New York: Grove Press, 1982), pp. 22-26, since she makes so much of Wilson's sympathy for misfits. That the ones in TMB demonstrate more commitment than she grants those in other plays, that Chad resorts to violence or that Dan, as the “Last of the Mound Builders,” carries a mythic burden like many of Tennessee Williams's characters, should have added to the little credit Wilson gets from her.

  6. Stanley Kauffmann, “On Theater,” New Republic, 1 March 1975, p. 22.

  7. John J. O'Connor, “Lanford Wilson's Mound Builders Is an Ambitious and Puzzling Play,” New York Times, 11 February 1976, p. 90.

  8. John Pfeiffer's “America's First City,” Horizon, XVI (Spring 1974), pp. 58-63, provides a fascinating glimpse into a past that Wilson has imaginatively recreated while sticking pretty close to the historical facts. This very article may have inspired Wilson since the play uses some ideas. The comment that Cahokia is “one of those sites that kills you. You can spend years working on a single mound” (p. 59), anticipates Dan's “It's a man's life work here” (p. 130). Even crucial phrases are echoed: “vanished without a trace,” (p. 59) and repeated in the play (p. 106). Additional information on the Mound Builders—including a bibliography—can be found in Peter Farb, Man's Rise to Civilization. The Cultural Ascent of the Indians of North America, 2nd ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1978), pp. 163-173, 233-38.

  9. Dasgupta, pp. 27-28 and Henry Schvey, “Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson,” in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, ed. Hedwig Book and Albert Wertheim (Munich: Max Hueber Verlag, 1981), pp. 227, 241.

  10. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Delta Books, 1977), p. 15. This collection of essays contains countless insights into the nature, possibilities and uses of photography.

  11. The Nice Conference on Postmodern Fiction, held in April 1982, was entirely devoted to this problem; see the Proceedings, Representation and Performance in Postmodern Fiction, ed. Maurice Couturier (Montpellier: Delta, 1983).

  12. Cynthia's polaroids of the tomb do not show much because they were taken when it was already getting dark, which elicits from August the quip that “Burials have a way of turning up just as the light goes” (p. 91). Indeed, they shun the light.

  13. Dasgupta, p. 31. The ideal of a simple, traditional life-style in close harmony with nature, visibly preoccupies Wilson: in The Rimers of Eldritch it is pierced only to be reaffirmed in 5th of July as a condition of human survival. See, respectively, Helmut Winter, “Lanford Wilson: The Rimers of Eldritch,” in Das amerikanische Drama der Gegenwart, ed. Herbert Grabes (Kronberg: Athenaeum Verlag, 1976), p. 126 and Barry B. Witham, “Images of America: Wilson, Weller and Horovitz,” Theatre Journal, XXXIV (May 1982), pp. 225-26.

  14. In The Man of Reason. “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy (London: Methuen, 1984) Genevieve Lloyd traces the history of the gender bias of the ideal of Reason, together with its concomitant value implications.

  15. Edith Oliver, “On the Mounds,” New Yorker, 17 February 1975, p. 85. The reference to Salinger (p. 66) who has persistently been taken to task for his sentimentality, possibly betokens Wilson's critical attitude towards Dan's naivety and idealism. In addition, it obliquely re-affirms Delia, who claims to be familiar with the character of Seymour (See-More) Glass, as a visionary writer. See Ihab Hassan's study of the existentialist inspired post-war American novel, Radical Innocence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 284.

  16. John Macquarrie, Existentialism (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972), pp. 281-82.

  17. Dasgupta, p. 28.

  18. Balm in Gilead alludes through its title to the Bible and The Rimers of Eldritch has an epigraph from Jeremiah, and, of course, Angels Fall is loaded with references to the Bible.

  19. Farb, p. 169.

  20. Dasgupta, p. 28: “The repetitive cycle of comedy is, at times, tinged with sadness, but life always continues in Wilson's plays.”

  21. Lloyd, pp. 1-3.

  22. Oliver, p. 84.

  23. The only critic to give the play its due within the brief space allotted him was Mel Gussow, “Wilson's Mound Builders,” New York Times, 3 February 1975, p. 35

  24. O'Connor, p. 90.

  25. Kauffmann, p. 22.

  26. Harold Clurman, “Theater,” Nation, 15 March 1975, p. 315.

  27. C. Christopher Soufas, Jr., “Thinking in La vida es sueño,PMLA, 100 (1985), pp. 287-99 thus explains Calderon's play. See also for the references to Foucault and Reiss, who expanded the former's distinction.

  28. Helmut Winter, p. 125, speaks of “die vorsätzlich Dissoziierung der Handlung, die Fragmentierung einer Zeitspanne in Einzelszenen.”

  29. Memory is considered by philosophers like Thomas Aquinas a rational faculty. See Soufas, p. 290.

  30. Clurman, p. 316, Schvey, p. 233, Kauffmann, “A Tale Told,” in Theater Criticisms (N.Y.: P.A.J. Publications, 1983), pp. 137-39.

Christopher Edwards (review date 9 June 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289

SOURCE: Edwards, Christopher. “Pale and Interesting.” Spectator 264, no. 8448 (9 June 1990): 46.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards provides a favorable assessment of Burn This, specifically hailing the performance of John Malkovich as Pale.]

Theatre is a corrupt art. At any rate, live performance is a means by which flawed writing can be redeemed. Nothing new about that idea, of course, but you are forcefully reminded of it in the present production of Lanford Wilson's Burn This at the Hampstead Theatre. Anna (Juliet Stevenson) is a New York dancer whose brilliant gay dancing partner has just died. Anna and her other gay flatmate Larry (Lou Liberatore) are mourning their friend when his shaggy-maned doped-up brother Pale bursts into the apartment. Pale is anything but what his name suggests. As played by John Malkovich, this must be the most highly charged performance in London. Ferociously railing against motorists, New York, all of modern city life, he takes the stage by storm in an extraordinary antic display of great emotional and physical energy. Lurching violently around one second, he is feline the next, first smashing the walls and furniture, then sobbing his heart out. As for the emotionally closed-up Anna, she is repelled one minute, the next she is in bed with him.

It is that kind of play. Much of the writing is sentimental and the ending is slushy. Anna's boyfriend is a perfunctory creation called Burton, as in gone for a Burton, and that is what happens to him despite a game performance by the excellent Michael Simpkins. The other character, Larry, is a relentlessly wise-cracking gay. But the great attraction of the play is the opportunity it gives John Malkovich to deliver a controlled study of emotional vulnerability and wild athletic rage.

Lanford Wilson and John C. Tibbetts (interview date spring 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3089

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and John C. Tibbetts. “An Interview with Lanford Wilson.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5, no. 2 (spring 1991): 175-80.

[In the following interview, Wilson discusses his early life, writing process, and career with the Circle Repertory Company.]

At the beginning of Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky, the character of Alan comes downstage out of the darkness. “I've been trying to tell this story, to get it down, for a long time,” he says to the audience, “—for a number of years, seven years at least—closer to ten.” Alan's lament is the playwright's dilemma. He explains that the story has been told dozens of times to friends, each time with different starts and different endings. He adds that the characters often disrupt matters and go off on their own, wilfully, sometimes destructively. “They wouldn't have any part of what I wanted them to say. They sat down to coffee or some damn thing.”

For thirty-four years, ever since Lanford Wilson's arrival in New York City in 1956 at the age of nineteen, he has fought and wrestled that stubborn, sometimes pliant, sometimes recalcitrant raw material of theatrical stuff. Now one of America's most successful and respected playwrights, he is turning his energies increasingly to that kind of theatrical trench warfare known as the “staged reading.” He is in Kansas City at the moment visiting the Missouri Repertory Theater's Second Stage to direct a reading of Timothy Mason's new play, Babylon Gardens. Obviously, he identifies with this play—like Lemon Sky it is about a young man trying to cope with memories of a difficult relationship with his father. It will go through many hours of rehearsal (or “discovery” as he puts it) before facing three days' worth of paying audiences. Then it will go back to New York for a possible premiere. Ask Timothy Mason, who is also here, just how possible that premiere is, and he only shrugs. His play isn't finished yet. Lanford Wilson agrees.

“It's very strange,” Wilson says. “You never know where a play comes from. You may have had the idea for five years; you still don't know where it came from or where it's going to hit you; or when you're going to actually sit down and write the darned thing. And when you do sit down to write, you may write something completely different.”

His own Lemon Sky, to stay with that example for a moment, is a case in point. One early version was given a staged reading at the O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwright's Conference in 1968. In 1970 a different version came to Buffalo's Studio Arena Theater.

Then it moved to an Off Broadway theatre for a brief run later that May. It was revived after more changes fifteen years later at The Second Stage in New York in 1985. When it was printed in the May 1986 issue of American Theatre, it revealed still more changes.

“What drives me crazy is having to finally say—OK, you can print it. Because I keep wanting to tinker with it and fuss with it. And my publishers hate me, because they send me page proofs and I send them back with marginalia all over them and they say—Lanford, this costs a fortune to re-do. I just never—I always want to change things.”

We are sitting in Room 119 of the Missouri Repertory Theater's Stage Two. The actor rehearsals before tomorrow's first public reading have been intense. Wilson's soft Missouri drawl belies a quick volatility that seems to prowl around, restless, even at this late hour on a wintry February evening.

“I love these readings,” he is saying. “We have them at Circle Rep, too. We have a Friday reading every week of a new play. It's either one that a company writer is working on; or one that we found, the library department has found from outside from a new writer. Sometimes we invite the writer to come and hear it. And many times it's the first time he's heard his work read in public. It's not for an audience—just an audience of Circle Rep members, which is about two hundred.”

Incidentally, these Circle Rep readings have become notorious for playwrights like John Patrick Shanley. In a recent interview during the release of his film, Joe Versus the Volcano, Shanley told me there comes a time in his work when he has to cut that umbilical cord. “I'll do a couple of readings, maybe two or three, but that long, developmental process Lanford has, well—God bless him—but I wouldn't want to do that! When it comes to playwrighting, they all have their own way of working. Lanford comes from Circle Repertory, which has a tradition of taking ten years to get it right. And I'd die! I'd say—chain me to a wall. I couldn't do it!”

Wilson is looking about at the tight circle of empty chairs. Dozens of coffee cups and ashtrays piled with mangled cigarette stubs are strewn about the table in front of us. Timothy Mason has joined in the conversation. By contrast to Wilson's thatched hair, furious eyebrows, and restless manner, Mason is tidy and self-contained.

“You find acute ears among the listeners who come to these readings, in New York, or here in Kansas City,” he says. His Minnesota voice is a pleasant counterpoint to Wilson's. “People rediscover they have ears for the theatre. They get attuned to just the sounds of the readings very quickly.”

Wilson laughs sharply, agreeably. “I sometimes find that the readings are more important than the subsequent productions. When you have a reading without all the trappings, without the stuffing, your mind has to work and you make the set and costumes and the changes. You end up becoming the director.”

The Circle Rep first discovered Mason when his unsolicited manuscript for a play called Levitation appeared in the mail. Wilson became Mason's dramaturg and invited him to come to New York. Now Mason is a company playwright and has had three plays produced by the organization.

Wilson is satisfied that history is repeating itself. He himself is a product of regional theatres and noncommercial theatres.

“I was born in Lebanon, Missouri and graduated from high school in the town of Ozark, where I had moved to go to high school. My father had left a long time ago and my mother had remarried. But I got out of Missouri as soon as I could. I thought, I've got to get the hell out of here. And I left, went out to San Diego. My father, whom I hadn't heard from in thirteen years, said—why don't you come out to San Diego? And I split as quick as I could. And then we didn't get along at all well. So I went to see some friends of mine in Chicago and fell in love with Chicago. I always thought I was going to be a painter. I thought I was going to do that. I was the best artist at Ozark High School. There were ten people in the art department and I was the best one. And then I went to San Diego State and I wasn't the best one anymore. But still I thought I was going to be a painter. Actually, I was interested in advertising and advertising illustration, editorial illustration—or even produce illustration. My writing was just an avocation then. Sometimes I would write stories and send them off and I got a collection of rejection slips from the best magazines in the country. One day in Chicago I was working in an ad agency and started a new story. I said, you know what?—this doesn't sound like a story, this sounds like a play! I got halfway down the page, no more than that, and said—I'm a playwright. It was just as clear as day. I had an actual talent for writing dialogue and no talent at all for writing narrative. Writing down the way people spoke in a room was suddenly incredibly exciting. It was one of those life decisions where you know immediately—you're never going to get to the bottom of this thing. And what more could you want than something that you're never going to—that's never going to satisfy you completely? And I just saw this as an enormous, great challenge that was going to be worth banging away at for the rest of my life.”

At that time in the mid-fifties Chicago was primarily a stop for touring plays. Wilson saw Night of the Iguana with Bette Davis before it opened on Broadway. He saw Brendan Behan's The Hostage with Joan Littlewood. “I think I tried to write my version of The Hostage for the next five years.”

An erstwhile playwright now, Wilson came to New York in 1956. Disgusted at Broadway, he turned to a number of new, small theaters. The movement we now call “Off-Off Broadway” was just beginning.

“I found the Caffe Cino in New York. That was the very beginning of ‘Off-Off Broadway.’ They hadn't even named it yet. I had the first play that I wrote in New York done within three months of my arrival. I've since learned that's not the typical story. … There was the Judson Church, the Cafe La Mama, and of course the Caffe Cino. And there were about 15 playwrights in New York City that worked there. And that's all. Now, there are about 40,000, it seems! It was a great apprenticeship, but we didn't know it. We just were working and you couldn't have more than a half-hour play because the audiences' butts couldn't stand to sit on the edge of a milk carton for more than a half hour! Also, the Caffe Cino was so hot you couldn't keep it closed, locked from the street for more than thirty minutes.”

He pauses to light another cigarette. There's a slight clatter behind us as two stagehands begin packing away the scattered chairs. We talk about his founding of the Circle Repertory Company in 1968.

“I had had no real success. I got sort of minor awards and minor grants from people because, as I said, there weren't many of us. But I didn't have any real success or any real recognition until The Hot l Baltimore in 1973, I don't believe. That was for Circle Rep. I had also written Rimers of Eldritch and Balm in Gilead. But you understand, they only ran for a week. So you couldn't get—there isn't much satisfaction in something running a week! Maybe that's why you have to be so prolific—the plays were on such a short time you had to write something very quick to get something back on!

“I was one of the founders of Circle Rep. At Off-Off Broadway we all worked together. There was sort of a loose collective of writers and designers and actors and directors. The Caffe Cino had folded and there was no place for us to go. So we started our own theatre to be as much like the Caffe Cino as possible. Except we were a little more professional than that. So we started up above a McCann shoestore on Broadway—but about 70 blocks north of the Broadway anyone's heard of. After about four or five years we moved to a professional house that used to be called Sheridan Square Playhouse; and now it's Circle Repertory Company. We're in Greenwich Village at 7th Avenue South and West 4th Street at one of the great old intersections in the Village. We're in our 21st or 22nd year now. It's amazing—it sure doesn't seem like it.”

All of Wilson's subsequent major works premiered there—besides The Hot l Baltimore, there have been The Mound Builders (1975), Serenading Louie (1976), Angels Fall (1982), and the “Talley Trilogy” (5th of July,Talley's Folly, and Talley and Son). Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for Talley's Folly. Many other productions and many newcomers got their start at Circle Rep.

“Let's see, there was When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder—that started there. There was a play that toured all over the country, called Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein. We did the first New York production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending. John Malkovich came to us from Steppenwolf in Chicago. William Hurt came from Juilliard to us. Christopher Reeve—just at the time he was auditioning for Superman in London. Swoozie Kurtz, Richard Thomas. We found Timothy Mason in our ‘slush-pile.’”

Mason explains he had sent Levitation to Circle Rep. “I feel fortunate that Circle Rep opened that envelope and responded to that first play I sent out. Without Circle Rep, I would be hopeless, without a theatrical home—a playwright all alone in his room. With a theatrical home, I've got constant feedback, a venue to read embryonic scripts. Bill Hurt did a reading in New York and we knew the thing needed more work. So here we are.”

This theatrical midwifery takes its toll, however. If a living income is difficult enough in the commercial theatre, it's all but impossible in the birthing rooms of noncommercial theatre.

“Most of the theatre work we do ends up being pro bono,” Wilson says. “Serious plays haven't made money for authors on Broadway for years. Since I've come to New York there's not been more than a few plays on Broadway that made the author anything to speak of at all. There's a new contract now where we get a minimum of $1,000 a week, which is very good, while a play is running on Broadway. But you really have to survive from other sources. My friend Tim here types for the National Kidney Foundation. I just finished roughing out a screenplay for Burn This. But it was rejected out of hand. It would make a terrific movie. You hope it can get done, like Driving Miss Daisy, which is very close to the original work. Then, they just pour money onto you until you say, stop, that's enough!” He laughs out loud. “I've had several plays on Broadway. And I go back and forth all the time about how I feel about the Broadway audience. I really have a feeling that I'm happier Off-Broadway and I'm happier in the regional theatres. Because, whatever the Broadway audience is going for, I'm not really quite sure that I'm pleasing them. It's very strange, when you're writing a play, you really don't care who you offend or what you say. You just have to say it one way or the other and it comes out and you work very hard to keep it as true to your subject as you possibly can. And you really say, I do not care who this offends. And then the play gets on and the very first person who gets up and walks, you say—My God, why is he leaving? Don't tell me he didn't like it! I'm so upset when somebody leaves. And you've put on the play with no compromises whatever and then someone is offended and leaves and you say—Lord, no, I hope I didn't offend that person! But that's just my old ‘wanting-to-be-liked’ nonsense. Fortunately, I don't have that when I write. You can't write a play to be liked.”

We exchange anecdotes about authors driven to write, by that compulsion that twitches fingers toward the pen and paper, or the typewriter, or the pad of paper. Wilson shakes his head ruefully.

“Tennessee Williams used to write at night because he took change in the subway. He sold tokens in the subway. He felt very protected in the booth. He had the night shift. And he'd sit there and write on the pad. I wrote The Madness of Lady Bright on the Reservation typewriter at the Americana Hotel in New York. I was the Night Reservation person and nobody ever made reservations at night. So, it was a very good occupation for a writer!”

The chairs have all been folded away by now. (Wilson and Mason look askance, as if their own will be whisked away from under them. I decide no better metaphor for life in the theatre could be found. There is time for a last question or two.) I ask how the Circle Rep in New York continues to encourage new playwrights and plays.

“Oh, we have our ‘literary department,’” drawls Wilson, puffing away at a last cigarette. “We have readers, they read unsolicited scripts. We're the only theatre in the country, I believe, that reads unsolicited scripts. And comments on them. From anyone. They don't even have to be submitted by an agent or anything anymore. And then we come to places like the Missouri Rep. We have an excellent cast here for the reading of Babylon Gardens. Some real discoveries. Missouri Rep called us, inviting us to come out here—and we said, would we ever! Plays have to have a long development process. And here things are completely—completely blind. We have no idea what the reception will be, what we've got. They will tell us.”

He looks around the room, those bristling brows surmounting a sudden puff of smoke. “It's like my work on the ‘Talley’ trilogy, you know? You don't know what's going to come out of it all. You have to learn so much about the characters and that takes time. You have to do so much research and so much of a—forgive this word—back story. You become interested in the background, like I did with the Talleys. And so—when I was working on 5th of July I had to get the story of Matt and Sally right. And I found that and thought, boy, that would be a really good story! So I wondered while writing Talley's Folly just what was happening up on the hill in the main house during the dialogue at the Folly. I said, boy, I sure would like to know that. And then I wanted to know about the guy that had built that house. So out comes Talley and Son. Working on something, it generates in your mind the story of what happens earlier. There are a lot of plays that go backwards like that.

“It's those characters. They need time to live out a life and learn to talk to you. They really do. They really do pester and hound you. They yell—but it's great, a healthy thing when they do. When they're silent is when you start worrying!”

Lanford Wilson and Jackson R. Bryer (interview date 20 May 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9738

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and Jackson R. Bryer. “Lanford Wilson.” In The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 277-96. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 20, 1993, Wilson and Bryer discuss the craft of playwriting, critical reaction to Wilson's work, and his literary influences.]

Lanford Wilson was born in 1937 in Lebanon, Missouri. After attending Southwest Missouri State College briefly and spending a year in San Diego and five years in Chicago, he came to New York in 1962. His initial plays, one-acts, were presented at the off-off-Broadway Caffe Cino. His first full-length play was Balm in Gilead (1965). It was followed by The Rimers of Eldritch (1966), The Gingham Dog (1968), Serenading Louie (1970), Lemon Sky (1970), The Hot l Baltimore (1973), The Mound Builders (1975), 5th of July, (1978; revised as Fifth of July [1979]), Talley's Folly (1979), A Tale Told (1981; revised as Talley & Son [1985]), Angels Fall (1982), Burn This (1986), Redwood Curtain (1992), and numerous one-acts. The Rimers of Eldritch received the Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award; The Hot l Baltimore received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Obie Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award; The Mound Builders received the Obie Award; and Talley's Folly was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award. Wilson is also the recipient of two Rockefeller Grants, an ABC—Yale Fellowship in motion picture writing, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Brandeis University Creative Arts Achievement Award for Theatre, an award from the American Institute of Arts and Letters, the State of Missouri Outstanding Artist's Award, and an honorary degree from the University of Missouri. His translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters premiered in 1984; he provided the libretto for Lee Hoiby's opera version of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke in 1971; The Migrants, on which he collaborated with Williams, was presented on television's Playhouse 90 in 1974; and his teleplay Taxi! was presented on The Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1969 Wilson, along with director Marshall Mason (who has directed most of the first productions of Wilson's plays) and others, founded the Circle Repertory Company. This interview was conducted on May 20, 1993.

[Bryer]: Even though you're an established playwright now, how much of a struggle is it still to get your plays done?

[Wilson]: It's not a struggle to get plays done, because I write for Circle Rep so I'm writing for a specific theatre, which I consider my theatre. I'm usually writing for specific people, so there's no problem there either; the problem is thinking of a play.

But Redwood Curtain didn't start at Circle Rep, did it? It started in Seattle and then was done in Philadelphia, wasn't it?

I wrote it for Circle Rep, but Tanya Berezin, who runs the theatre, decided that it should be done on Broadway. It started in Seattle, but it was always a Circle Rep production. It took forever. As soon as Tanya decided they wanted to do it on Broadway, I just held my head and wept, practically, knowing all of the problems that it would engender.

Would you have been happier if that play had stayed away from Broadway, if it had been done at Circle Rep initially?

Yes. It would have been done three years earlier.

What was the delay?

When they decided they wanted to do it on Broadway, they said they also wanted to do it at a regional theatre first. Then Marshall and I both said that we wanted to see it at a regional theatre in a reading first to see if it held that large a stage. Very kindly we were offered the reading program at Seattle Rep, and we went out there almost a year before it was finally done. As soon as we did the reading, they said, “We love it. Can we do it in our regular season almost a year from now?” That's where it started its trip to New York.

What you're basically saying is it wouldn't have had this circuitous route had Broadway not been the ultimate aim.

Exactly. We would never have had this route. We would have just done it at Circle Rep and let it run its six weeks and be done with the damn thing.

Following up on that, how do you feel about Broadway as a goal for your plays?

I don't think it's a goal. I think the goal is to write a good play. You have to think with two heads and not simultaneously; one follows the other. First you just write a good play, and then you try to get it produced under the best possible circumstances. I never think Broadway is the best possible circumstance for a serious play. Broadway usually allows about one comedy and one, or maybe two, serious plays a year to sneak through, and they'd better be ballyhooed very heavily before they get in. That's about all the critics can cope with. That's their scope. This year we've had Someone Who'll Watch over Me as well as Angels in America.

Haven't you done very well with plays that have never gone to Broadway?

I've done perfectly well with plays that have never gone to Broadway; but I've done better with the plays that have gone to Broadway, though, just financially speaking. Redwood Curtain is already scheduled to be done next season in seven theatres, I think.

And you think that's because it went to Broadway?

I think so. Angels Fall was not done in that many.

What you're saying is that a failed Broadway production leads to more productions than a successful off-Broadway production?

I think so.

Other playwrights say that one of the reasons to go to Broadway, although this would apply equally well to Circle Rep, is that then the play gets published. They say if a play stays out of New York, it's less likely to get published. In your case, most of your plays have gone to New York, although not necessarily to Broadway. That's fascinating that Redwood Curtain, despite its commercial failure, has gotten that much attention.

I think it's a good play also, but Mound Builders has not got near that kind of play and it never went to Broadway. Serenading Louie has never got that sort of attention; it never went to Broadway. Lemon Sky, even with the television production, has not done well.

What do you think would have happened if Redwood Curtain had been done simply as a Circle Rep production and not gone to Broadway?

It probably would have done about the same as Mound Builders. But that's all just airy speculation. Who knows; I have no idea.

On balance, what would you say you feel about the fact that it went to Broadway? On the one hand, it was a financial failure; but on the other hand, its life is extended now.

People who saw it liked it very much, so I think many of the people who are doing it saw it along the way somewhere, especially if they saw it on Broadway, because it was gorgeous on Broadway. It was designed originally for that house. It was designed for that house a year and a half earlier, but it was designed for that house.

That leads to another similar question. What do you think are the pros and cons of the nonprofit theatre network as a kind of developmental laboratory—and I guess you'd include Circle Rep in there?

It depends so much on who you are. I don't know if I should try to think as a new writer coming to New York, or as myself, or as a new writer anywhere in America really. You have to take the whole regional system as well as off-Broadway; off-Broadway is part of the American regional system. I believe that a success in New York, even off-Broadway or off-off Broadway, does have a better likelihood of an afterlife than a success at South Coast Rep, where they're also doing a lot of new plays, unless it's really an extraordinary play that catches on and people start seeing and carrying on over it and it gets done everywhere.

What about the regional theatre as a laboratory, in the sense of affording you the opportunity to work on a play? Talk about the Seattle experience with Redwood Curtain. Didn't that give you more opportunity to work on the play than if you'd had to open in New York?

We were still changing things after we opened on Broadway. No matter where a play is done, if you have eyes in your head there are things you can tinker with and there are things you want to change and that you want to improve. It might just be one word or one line that you don't want in the play anymore, or a line that you've been trying to formulate for years and finally get. Just having the play on anywhere is an incredible benefit, even if it's just a lab show. We have a lab at Circle Rep that does, I guess, a play a week. Another branch of the lab does one reading a week, every Friday, and that's an incredible benefit. There are a lot of people who don't take advantage of the discussion and what they learn there, but I certainly do. I think it's very important. I've always had my plays done in the Friday readings. There's usually been a rush to get it on so I've never had a lab production of one until just about six months ago. They did a lab production of my new play, and it wasn't finished. I've finished a draft of it now, and it's a play deliberately designed for a very small room—as a result of “the Redwood trek,” I think!

You started by making a distinction between yourself and a new playwright. You had the luxury as Lanford Wilson of being able to rework Redwood Curtain right up until the end. But if you're a new playwright who's trying to get his or her play on, being able to do that in the relative privacy of Pittsburgh rather than Broadway is probably an advantage, isn't it?

Oh, of course. That was the whole idea. Imagine the luxury of doing it with eight hundred people in the audience. It's just extraordinary to be able to have that feedback, to see people storm out, and you say, “Well, I certainly have to leave that line; that line is apparently wonderfully offensive.” It's an incredible benefit. There's this odd thing that happens when you hear a play with an audience, even in the lab where there are only fifteen people in the audience. It's a brand-new play, you're very nervous about it, and they do it completely wrong. Nevertheless, these people who are listening are very well trained in making those adjustments. We also have a writer's workshop, here at my house, so you may have heard it here. We have two sessions a year, one in my apartment, where we read full-length plays just among ourselves. The writers do the reading, and sometimes we drag in a couple of actors to help.

Just hearing it with that audience you hear so much; you hear it with a different head. It's no longer in your head, it's being delivered to an audience; you hear the audience reaction and lack of reaction. In the discussions that follow—if they're at all the way Circle Rep handles the discussion—you learn so much about what the audience has received. In Circle Rep discussions, the writer's not allowed to answer any questions or you start talking about what you intended. What you are trying to understand is what the audience got, and your intentions be damned. If they did not receive what you intend, there's no point in you talking about your intentions for half an hour. Just hearing the way something was received and what it meant to someone, if they followed something as simple as the story of the play or not, is of incredible benefit in early development. Even reading series are very important to the development of a play.

When you write a play, do you picture an audience? Who do you write for?

There's a circle of people, other writers and some actors—three or four actors that I like, and possibly the actors that I'm writing the parts for. I write specific challenges for actors from time to time, but whom do I write for? It's a circle of writers; but, you know, John Guare's sitting next to Chekhov who's sitting next to Ibsen who's sitting next to van Itallie. And Shakespeare's saying, “I did that four hundred years ago.” And you're saying. “Yes, but it was never all that clear, Billy; shut up!” Chekhov is laughing his ass off, and someone else is saying, “I don't get it.”

When the reading comes and somebody says, “I don't get it,” then do you have to say to yourself, “Have I misjudged what an audience can hear?”

Or “Have I just not been clear enough?” There's a strange development of my scripts: they get much longer. A lot of people cut. I end up cutting when it gets in production; but from the first draft it probably increases a quarter at least, with me just going back and trying to explain what the hell I was talking about, because to me the story, the theme, the metaphor, and all of the rest of it are all very clear in the first draft. I find often from the discussion that no one is really following me at all. In Fifth of July, for instance, if you don't begin by saying, “It's about this Vietnam veteran who is an English teacher,” then I've not done it right. In the first draft no one said that; they didn't have a clue. They thought it was about selling the house or about God knows what. If we don't start with “It's about this English teacher who's in crisis,” then I've missed it. In the first draft, Gwen ran off with the play completely. I had to cut some of the funniest lines that I've ever written because she was just trampling on the theme of the play.

What in your mind distinguishes a legitimate comment from an illegitimate comment?

You have to know—by the time the play is finished; you may not know this until it's finished or until a short while after it's finished—what the hell you were after. I think, as a play is being written, as it's being developed in your mind and on paper, you begin to understand what you're writing and what you're trying to say. Writing, of course, is the process of understanding what you're feeling. You know generally what your play is about and what you're trying to say, and if a comment has nothing to do with that, you ignore it. There's a lot of things you hear that are irrelevant and you have to know that: “Yes, that's interesting, but it has nothing to do with the play I'm writing” or “Yes, it would probably make it a more commercial play or a more viable play for a cross-section of the American audience—whatever the hell that is—but it really has nothing to do with what I'm trying to say so therefore it's not interesting.” In other words, you don't do something just to make it popular, just to make it funny, or just to make it accessible, unless you're making your theme or what you're trying to say more accessible.

Can you think of another example from a play where you made a change because you felt that it wasn't sufficiently clear?

In Redwood Curtain, I did a lot of research about the lumber industry and had a great deal of business in the first draft which I thought was just fascinating. I thought it was fascinating because it was something I was just learning, but all of the details of that sale detracted so much from what the central image of the play was supposed to be that we just went off on a weird tangent that was completely unnecessary to the theme of the play. Much of that was cut back and simplified. A whole paragraph would go, and one sentence would become a phrase. The words “hostile takeover” took care of thousands of paragraphs of meticulous research. It just became much clearer to cut all of the details.

Using that case as an example, how did you realize that about Redwood Curtain? Was that something you, hearing the play on its feet, realized, or was that something someone else said to you?

First, Claris Nelson, one of the writers who's important to me, who gives a better analysis of a play from a cold reading than just about anyone (and she knows business very, very well; she's a business person), was sitting there and she said, “You're losing me in this forest of the lumber industry. I'm not sure it's quite like that, I start arguing with it, and I get completely off of the track. All that's necessary is, what has this done to her? Because we're trying to talk about someone who no longer knows who she is.” Of course, she was completely right and there went all of my meticulous research. She just hated it completely; and I thought she would be the one who would appreciate it the most because she understood business.

Basically, after you examined what she was saying, did you realize she was right?

Oh, absolutely, especially after the first cold reading. It was absolutely clear—because all of that was left in for the cold reading—that it didn't belong there. It had nothing to do with the theme of the play, with what the play was trying to say.

Do you think that, if she hadn't mentioned it, you would have realized it anyway?

I bet not, not for a long time, and it would have been so much more difficult to change all of that after we were in production or in rehearsal.

When that happens, is it more likely to come from someone else rather than from your own hearing of the play?

Sometimes it is, because you're really quite deaf, especially to your meticulous research, but not when you can see an audience drift completely away from it. When you have a chance to question them, they say, “I was totally lost; I was so bored by that.”

Have you ever had an instance when sitting there without anybody saying anything, without any audience reaction, you've said, “That's all wrong.”

Of course, all the time. Every line. As I say, just in the first reading of a play, you know if it doesn't sound right. The play that I'm working on now, which is a very small play and will not be done anywhere (I probably won't even ever allow it to be done) is about gigantic themes. I seem to be doing this more and more—writing very very small plays that are about huge things. But this one is a deliberately very small play about one of the most important things that's happened to mankind, and with the first reading I realized that we just don't spend enough time with the play, with the people; there's so much more information that we should have.

And you didn't realize that in writing it?

Oh, not at all. I thought it was very dense and very crabbed and very excitingly circuitous and tight. Of course, it was much too tight; it needed to breathe, and the people needed to explain themselves. Then there were a few technical things. One of the reasons I had trouble working on the project in the past—it's something I've been intending to do for about ten years—is that the central character is a woman who influenced everyone but almost never spoke. She hated speaking, she didn't talk very much, and I finally came to the conclusion that, all right, goddamn it, this is the night that she speaks! We have this character who never ever speaks who is going to talk, and this guy is going to grill her until he finds out what makes her tick. The guy himself is in such crisis that she understands that he needs to talk or he needs to listen, so for this one time she does talk to him and does talk about herself. Although she's very self-effacing, we do get the information. Also it's just necessary to get the facts of her life in there somehow, and he just unashamedly grills the woman.

So the task, then, was to make you feel that this is a woman who rarely spoke but was so incredibly wonderful in the life that she lived that she influenced all of these people. Here is a woman who never speaks who has page after page of dialogue, and how do I get you to believe that this woman really is a very quiet woman? That was not completely successful in the first draft. You felt her going on, and I realized I had to emphasize her reluctance to talk even under the circumstances. She wrote four pages of an autobiography but then said, “Who cares? It's completely unimportant. We don't need another one of these; we don't need another story about a woman who lives this particular kind of life.” So we have very little of her writing; she wrote a Christmas letter, mimeographed it, and sent it to all of her friends every year, and that's about all we have. But it's mostly about planting and the weather and what wildflowers bloomed and which didn't and very little about anything concrete; but that was her life, so there was a lot of that in it. That's why it's for a very small audience!

Is it a one-act play?

It's a very long one-act play. In the first draft it's about thirty-five or forty minutes. In the second draft it was fifty-five, and it's going to be an hour and a half by the time I finish it. There's no intermission, there can't be one.

As you look back over your playwriting career, what sort of changes do you see? What have you learned to do better? How are the most recent plays different from the earliest ones?

When I first started writing plays, I said, “Theatre should be a three-ring circus.” I wanted a lot of people, all talking at once, creating life on the stage. After we formed the Circle Company, I became more responsible to the actor. I wanted to write deep, fully rounded people, beautiful language, roles an actor could sink his teeth into. The craft became less flamboyant, more subtle. The trick now is to get some of the old panache back into a beautifully constructed work.

Why are you a playwright? Why aren't you a poet or a novelist? What specifically about playwriting appeals to you?

Well, I think we have different talents. I'm not compact enough to be a poet. I enjoy reading poetry sometimes, but sometimes I don't even enjoy reading it because it's so damned compact it goes past me; I don't get it. I think, however, I'm very strongly attracted to the craft of and the limitations of theatre. In a novel you can go on for pages about the psychological development of a person or the psychological ramifications or the political ramifications of a moment and on and on. You have to find a way to do that without saying it in the theatre, and that's just thrilling to me. The construction of a play is just incredibly difficult. Nowadays, the style is to do it without letting anyone know that you're doing it, because as soon as they see a construction they say, “Oh my God. I saw a symbol or I saw a metaphor,” as though that wasn't what we have to build with. So you have to hide all of that with great facility, and that excites me.

When I was trying to write a screenplay, I realized what a totally different animal the contemporary screenplay is. It has so little introversion. Everything is extroverted. It's a generalization but in the popular movie people say what they mean. In a movie they might say, “I love you”; in a play they might say, “Get out of my face!” It means exactly the same thing because of inhibitions and so on, but that doesn't read at all in a film. You're just working with a completely different agenda. Filmwriting is a very difficult medium for me because I've spent all of my professional life trying to hide the things that have to be very obvious in movies. Also exposition is handled in a completely different way—you see it or you can flash back or something like that—whereas that doesn't interest me at all. It's much more exciting to try to get someone's history into a scene while the scene is always in the present tense, without the audience knowing that they're getting exposition. They just think they're learning about what is happening between these two people. I love the limitations of theatre. While it has incredible possibilities, gigantic and wonderful possibilities, still it's beautifully limited.

What about Hollywood and playwrights? Hollywood is not terribly respectful of playwrights. Why do so many plays suffer when they are transferred to film?

Because they shouldn't have been transferred, or else they should have been transferred a lot more cleverly. Sometimes it works wonderfully. There's the story of Tennessee working on Streetcar. Of course, that was the same director and the same author working on the screenplay. When they first imagined the movie, they thought it would be quite different from the play. They would open it out, they would go back to Belle Reve; it would just be a completely different experience. But as they started working on the film script, more and more it came back to just the play, and it ended with almost the text of the play. It can work but you have to be incredibly ballsy to do it. With Virginia Woolf they just cut a few of the profanities out, but other than that it's almost the script of the play. You have to be bold enough to do that or approach the story in a completely different way, but it's very difficult to tell the story and make it mean the same thing in a different medium.

A good play is a microcosm and a metaphor and has ramifications. If you start telling it in a different way, you lose one of those: you might lose the ramifications; you might keep the metaphor but you lose so much that you're better off not doing it. It's much easier to do a novel or a short story. The worse the novel is, the better off you are. A novel, generally speaking, has so much less dialogue in it that you're probably dealing with one-quarter of the lines and so you have all that room for story development. You can sit on a train for ten minutes with nothing happening, just sit looking at the ceiling. You can't do that when you're adapting a play because you're already dealing with two hours, with more words than most people think a movie can handle.

How do you feel about the production aspects of playwriting? Some playwrights feel the play is done when they finish writing it: other playwrights say it's 50 percent done when they finish writing it and the other 50 percent happens in production. Where do you fall on that continuum?

When I say it's finished, I'm about 90 percent done. I'll go through three or four drafts in a lab situation. Hearing it read to me or hearing it read to a small lab audience in the Friday readings is very important. I don't consider it finished until a couple of drafts after that. Then, when I do think we have a rehearsal script, probably 90 percent of it is there. Neither Marshall nor I feel that rehearsal is the place to rewrite a play, but we'll change small things. When we changed A Tale Told to Talley & Son, after I'd seen it in production there were a thousand things I wanted to do to it. It was beautifully produced and gorgeously acted, but it was all wrong. A Tale Told was a barn burner. It's a plotted play, it's deliberately a 1940s-style play with a lot of plot. In the first draft, the ghost of Timmy starts talking only in the second act and he starts telling about how he was killed. It's one of the best speeches I've written, but it's quite long and you just wanted to yank that kid off the stage because there was a plot going.

When you have that kind of a plot going, you're not going to stand around for something as irrelevant as how this guy got killed. That character is completely redone in Talley & Son. He was saying beautiful words and I'm sitting in the audience saying. “Will somebody please yank that kid.” In the rewrite I had to find a balance of where we can put him in and how much of that story we can have. We had much less of it, and I used him also as a narrator to fill us in on a lot of the logistics of the play. I cut way back again on the business of the family, made the family wealthier because I just needed them larger. There were a lot of changes. We were working on that through all of the rehearsals. Timothy Busfield was playing Timmy out in California, and I had him sit on a stool just as if I were drawing him, so I could look at him and try to write a speech for him. I knew exactly what I wanted him to say, and I just could not get it. He sat on the stool and I sat at the typewriter looking at him and very slowly developed the quite brief speech that he was to say. He got up at one point, not really understanding what was going on, and I said, “Sit down! What are you doing? You can't move!” He was shocked that I was using him, but it was really very important to be looking at my material.

That's fascinating, because what you're saying is that, sitting in your study, you might not have been able to do that, but being confronted by the actor in a live situation you were able to work on that character more successfully.

I couldn't have done it without that physical actor there. With the rehearsal going on in the other room, there was an urgency to the moment that fed beautifully into the work. But we didn't get the final moment of Talley & Son until we brought it back to New York and were in previews at Circle Rep. We were in previews before I realized that Timmy left and Lottie was onstage by herself. We did get that gradually she realizes he's there. He had talked to her a lot in A Tale Told; they had had conversations. They don't have in Talley & Son but, as he's talking to the audience toward the end of the play, he begins talking to her as well and we get the feeling that she's hearing it. When he walks off the stage, it's just an incredibly dramatic moment to leave her alone without that ghost that she's discovered. She's suddenly very, very lonely on that stage by herself, and I didn't understand that we had to end the play with just her until we were in previews.

Was that a result of physically seeing it and knowing it would make a wonderful dramatic moment?

The play did not end. It was not fulfilling with the lights going down with both of them onstage looking at each other. But when he said all he had to say, wandered off to some other interest, and left her all by herself, it ended the play.

Do you think you could have realized that sitting in your study?


Because you wouldn't have visualized it?

I wouldn't have visualized it; it was a completely visual thing. We almost had him open the door, but then we decided, “No, we're not going to do that because as an audience we are imagining him not there and what she is seeing. She may be seeing a vague little shadow of him; but if he opens the door, it's too startling for that moment. For another play it would be fine, but for that moment it would look ridiculous because we're imagining him not there and those doors are opening by themselves.” She has opened the door, and he hears the music from across the river and wanders out. She watches him going out, and he's gone.

It's almost like putting a note in a piece of music in the right place. It's a feeling that is beyond intellectualization in a situation like that, isn't it?

It really is. It becomes theatre. You see plays all the time that you say, “No, that's just wrong.” It's not wrong in the writing; it's wrong in the direction, and that becomes theatre. When you read a play as simple as Hay Fever, you know exactly the sound of their voices. You know exactly how this play has to be done. You see it and it's never done right. It never has the right sound, it never has the flip urbanity that that play demands. They get all bogged down in real moments that have nothing whatsoever to do with the movement and the sound of that play. You need to see something like the movie of Blithe Spirit to understand how the damn play has to be done. It can be done with different interpretations of all of the characters, but it still has to have that theatricality, that rhythm, that whatever. I've seen perfect casts of Hay Fever that should have done that play in a flick and they went way off, way off; they just ruined it, and you couldn't get a better cast.

And something can be right for one person and very wrong for another. I know when I saw the production that was generally bombed in New York of Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, I absolutely loved it. It did for me everything that that play had to do and I said, “I don't want to see this play again. I will never ever see this play again because now I've seen the play.” I had seen a dozen productions of it that weren't funny, that didn't have the poignancy. It was just cast perfectly. The child that comes in with his little backbone sticking out was so small and so young—and that is exactly right. I've seen someone much too old in that part always and it gave you a completely different feeling. Also Steve Martin, whom I don't like in movies very often, walked onstage and it almost took your breath away to see someone walk onstage that casually. He walked onstage without a single ounce of theatrical performance rhythm. He walked onstage as someone would walk across a room. Well, that just doesn't happen; everyone has to perform walking across a stage. He didn't do that. He just waltzed onstage and started talking, and it took my breath away. I was with someone else from the theatre, I don't remember who, and we were spellbound throughout the entire thing, and audiences all around us were quoting the reviews: “Oh, look how self-indulgent Robin Williams is.” I don't like Robin Williams at all in most of his films, but he was brilliant in this because it was written for a comedian and he's a comedian.

What have you learned from other playwrights living or dead?

It was fun when off-off-Broadway was just starting; I've said this before, but it's so true. I think it became a pattern; when I lost all of those playwrights or when we all went wandering away, they stayed with me and just increased and added some of the other ones I respect and I admire. If Sam Shepard discovered something, it belonged to all of us. It was, “Oh, good, we can do that, that is possible.” It was very much like we were inventing or discovering theatre for ourselves. If Megan Terry did something or Jean-Claude did something, it belonged to all of us suddenly.

I would never have written This Is the Rill Speaking if I had not read You May Go Home Again by David Starkweather, which was a completely nonrealistic play. This Is the Rill Speaking is essentially the same play. It's just my experience, my going home. David wrote a character named David who was very reluctant to go home to his sister's wedding because he didn't want to go home; he didn't want to go back there and get all embroiled in that nonsense again. The absurd mother, the absurd father, the ridiculous sister, and the even more ridiculous man that she was going to marry are all done very abstractly. The mother is mopping the floor throughout half of the play; the son is dressed as a Japanese executioner or something throughout the play and trying to cut the rope with a huge ax in his hand. He's off at a distance from them intellectualizing deeply and philosophizing deeply, and the mother's mopping the floor saying, “David, please, I've got a million things to do.” At the end he makes them all bow down: he's going to execute them with his ax. And the mother says, “Even the child? Even the baby?” “Yes,” he says, “all of you.” They all bow down, and they say, “Oh, very well, but get on with it because we're really very busy, we've got so much to do.” There's a roll of thunder and a blackout and a crash, and the lights come up immediately, and he's there in jacket and tie and ordinary shoes and a little suitcase, and they say, “Oh, you made it,” and he says, “Oh, of course I would come home.” and that's the end of the play. Oh Lord, it just ripped me apart. I saw it about fifty times, every time it was done at Caffe Cino. It made me realize that you can write about those experiences, about the incredible love that was in that play, which was filled with hate but was all about love. It was filled with horrible, horrible portraits that were all done so beautifully. That's what I took from that play.

From something of Claris's I took something else. In Brontosaurus I stole completely from a very minor play that Sam Shepard wrote. I don't remember anything about it at all except that at the end of the play, the lead guy turns to the audience and says, “And then I walked down the street and I kept walking and I started thinking and then I stopped thinking and I kept walking and then I stopped,” and he freezes in position and the lights go out. Well, it was the most dynamic thing I'd ever seen in my life. In Brontosaurus the actor at the end of the play says, “And then I went down the street and this is the continuation of the story, then this happened to me.” I had no idea you could do that.

I was working at the Phoenix Theatre and saw their production of Next Time I'll Sing to You, which was just a glorious production of James Saunders's play. He's still my favorite of all those British playwrights from back then. That and A Scent of Flowers are two of the most beautiful plays ever. One section, an entire page, was stolen verbatim by Tom Stoppard for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He just flat out stole one page of it because he needed it, I think. In Next Time I'll Sing to You, the second act begins with the longest, most ridiculous shaggy dog story you have ever heard in your life. Estelle Parsons sits on the edge of the stage, talks to the other character, and it goes on and on and on and on and on; really what it is it's a shaggy dog story. It has a ridiculous punch line. The guy's been coming on to her and she essentially is saying, “I think if someone is attracted to someone, it is perfectly all right for them to have a relationship. I see nothing wrong with that at all. If someone is attracted to someone, I think a relationship is a logical …” and it goes on and on and on like that and ends with, “The only problem is I'm not attracted to you.” It's a fifteen-minute speech.

All of the shaggy dog stories in Balm in Gilead came from that realization; there the characters usually turn to the audience. Not the girl's long speech but all of the short speeches: “The difference between people in New York and Chicago is that in Chicago no one carries an umbrella and in New York they think nothing at all about an umbrella,” which ends with “Consequently they get rained on a lot in Chicago”—all of that comes directly from that shaggy dog story in Next Time I'll Sing to You. I never would have thought of stopping the action and having a little entertaining speech with a punch line. It never would have crossed my mind. As I say, once you saw something back then, it belonged to all of us. I'm sure Megan Terry used that, and people were using things of mine as well—the simultaneous dialogue and all of that. And I don't have any idea where I got that.

As you have learned your craft, has that become less so now, or was it because of the particular moment in theatrical time where you were all going to see each other's plays?

I think maybe I'm not as facile now. I'm not able to assimilate. I'm not as easily assimilated anymore.

Are you as easily impressed?

Oh God, yes. If I'm not influenced by Angels in America, I'm not doing the right thing. I've already read both parts, and the first part (the second part's not finished yet) is one of the best plays written in America since what? Well, I think there is Long Day's Journey, then Streetcar, then Virginia Woolf, then Hurlyburly (in the rewritten script, not in the production), and now Angels in America. These are the really important poles in American theatre. Angels in America returns us right back to all of the theatrical possibilities of the stage and to the unabashed intelligence of the writer. It's just delicious! If I can't learn something from that, then I'm ossified—and it would be terrible to think that. My plays are getting more and more hard, more and more compact, like a black dwarf or something. They're getting denser and denser and denser and denser and I just have to explode. I have to get out of that. I've always felt this way. I was saying this when I wrote Serenading Louie. I'm never happy with how small the plays are: even when they're gigantic, I'm never happy with them.

Do you think that being more assimilable would help that?

No. I think I was like that in Balm in Gilead, I was like that in Lemon Sky. I think Burn This was a great advance because I finally got some of that energy from Balm in Gilead and some of those other plays back onto the stage again, got it in a character in a realistic situation.

Do you see Burn This as a less dense play?

No, the idea was to keep what I'd learned of character development and the psychology of the character and the ramifications of what I was trying to talk about but to get some of the good old-fashioned theatricality back onto the stage, even if it was just in one character, Pale.

What are your writing habits? Where do you work? For how long? At what time of day? Do you use a word processor or do you write out your work in longhand initially?

First I have to bore all my friends to tears saying, “I don't have an idea for a play.” This lasts anywhere from a year to about three. During that time I have no discipline at all. When I finally do settle down to work, I have a fairly set routine. I begin working about forty-five minutes after I get up. This could be nine in the morning or three in the afternoon. I begin by rereading what I wrote the day before—not editing too much—just to see where I was. Usually that tells me what I want to do next. I write for perhaps four or five hours, sometimes as little as three, sometimes as long as eight or nine, until I run out of gas and have no idea how to continue, or not the energy. As I work, I might make notes of things that are going to happen later—lines, events. I used to carry a notebook and I could write anywhere—on the subway, in a coffee shop, in a bar. Later I worked on a typewriter, either at the Circle Rep offices or at my apartment, or out in Sag Harbor at the house. Fifth of July was written mostly in Sag Harbor, Burn This mostly in the city at my apartment. I finally broke down and bought a primitive sort of word processor. I don't think I could write in longhand again or, for that matter, use a typewriter.

What gets you started on a play?

God, I wish I knew. Sometimes it's an image, sometimes it's a character. With Redwood Curtain it was Lyman. I met him, I saw him, I couldn't figure him out; so I had to figure out what made him tick and why we had abandoned him. He was just such a palpable symbol for the collective mental block that we have with our history. With Mound Builders, it was a moment that never even got into the play. There were people talking, they leave the stage, and you realize there have been all of these crickets, frogs, and all of these night sounds all the way through. A stick breaks and it's all suddenly quiet; all the bugs and everything shut up. In other words, there's something out there that's going to get you. That was the image that I started with with Mound Builders. I think it's probably the only time I've written a play successfully where I really wrote what I intended to write. It didn't take me off in some weird place that wasn't the first impulse. First impulses are sometimes very good just to get you started, but with that play, I really wrote about what I intended to write about all the way through and stuck to it. I learned a lot along the way. I didn't know they were archeologists when I started; I thought they were real estate developers.

With Hot l Baltimore, I started with the image of the lost trains and all of those great abandoned railroad stations and this glorious hotel that was run down. But I didn't realize it was a whores' hotel, that it was whores and retired people, until April came down the stairs and the play snapped into focus instantly. It was just the character and her voice suddenly saying, “All right, all right, what's the story this time? Last night it was something wrong with the plumbing, the day before that it was something else.” You can see it on the stage still; the play does not start until she comes down the stairs. It's almost right that it doesn't start until she comes down; she's the fourth character on, or maybe even the fifth. Marshall has said that he wants to throw away the first five pages of everything I write because it's just me trying to find my play. He's often very right. His direction of Hot l [Hot l Baltimore] was one of the most glorious things I've ever seen in my life.

When you start a play, or when you're writing it, how much of it do you know? Do you know the end? Do you know a general outline of where it's going? Do you discover it as you go along, or does it vary from play to play?

It varies some. Generally, I find out as I go along. I'm making little marginal notes as I go along, telling me things that I've discovered: “The first act will end like this.” I may not know how the last act ends, but I get an image; or maybe I'll begin with a knowledge of how the first act ends. I have a dynamite first-act ending of a play and I don't even know what the play is, so I'll probably never write it—but it sure is a dynamite first-act ending. It's typical of my endings, these long dying falls that I end acts on instead of something dramatic. Generally, I'm discovering the play as I go along. The characters are telling me without me pushing them around too much where the play wants to go. I'm making a lot of plot notes at the same time. I don't know much about it. That's why it's so difficult to try to begin a play, because when you're thinking about a play you're thinking about the whole damn play. I haven't learned to just think about whatever it is that's going to start me writing something. I'm always thinking about the whole play. There are a dozen plays where I can see the whole play in my mind and I just don't want to write it. If I could learn where I start. I would be searching for that start rather than an entire play, because it's never an entire play that I have when I begin.

With Burn This, I started with Pale's tirade. It killed me when we finally cut the place where I started on Pale. The play was four hours long, and all we cut was Pale going on and on and on. I loved that four-hour version, but nobody wanted to do it except John Malkovich. When I started, I had the dancer. Then I did the tirade and said, “What in the hell was that?” and realized that I had a play that I was going to write for someone that I eventually decided I didn't want to work with. Years earlier I'd written the beginning of that play, and it was down there brooding in my subconscious-somewhere. In that first speech that I wrote, he refers to his brother by name and I didn't even know what he was talking about. When I finally ran out of gas on that first speech, I said, “What in the hell is this?” Then I realized. “Oh, of course, that's a guy I was going to write for what's-his-name.” I had the whole story. I said, “Oh, so she's the dancer and she has the boyfriend who's a movie producer and the roommate who works in advertising.” So I had the whole damn play.

You mentioned earlier that you sometimes have written with specific actors or actresses in mind. Has that increased over the years?

Less the last few years. In Redwood Curtain, I was writing this man that I had met. It was not an actor, but a person that I had in mind. I had an image that I had made up for the girl, and I was writing the aunt for Debra Monk. I knew what I was doing with her. I knew Debra's voice and all of that, but the other two, not. Burn This I wrote for Malkovich and Nancy Snyder, but Nancy decided she didn't want to act anymore. She wanted to have children, and we were just lucky enough to find Joan Allen. I also had in mind someone quite different from John Hogan, who ended up playing Burton.

But earlier on, you did much more writing for actors?

We don't have the company that we did then. It was a result of having a company. The play that I want to write now, not the one that I've finished a draft of—that's called “Trinity,” by the way, the play that I've finished a draft of—but the play that I want to write for Circle Rep I want to write for people who are in the lab because they're around and I know them. We have a lab membership of about 250 actors who are just incredibly good; they're very much like our original young company was. There's not more than four of the original company still in New York, probably. With the original company, I wrote not for what I thought they could do but for what I wanted to challenge them to do. Sometimes I took advantage of who they were. I wrote Wes specifically for Danny Stone because of a tiny little moment that I'd seen him do in a play called Mrs. Murray's Farm, a play that Roy London wrote which was commissioned for the Bicentennial. There was one moment where one of his bosses came in and said something and left and the other one came in and said something completely opposite and left. For one moment as the play went on, you were just left to decide which one of those he was going to do. And for one moment he went, “Uh, which one of those am I supposed to do?” And that was Wes. It was the only moment that Danny had like that, and I knew he could do that.

What is your opinion of critics? Do you ever learn anything from them? In your mind, what would be a description of the ideal reviewer? Does he or she exist?

The theatre would be better off without critics. No. I've not learned anything from a critic, but they don't write to teach the author, thank God. I'm trying to ignore critics nowadays; I've stopped reading them unless I know the review is good, and of something I have seen and liked. My ideal reviewer is Harold Clurman, and we are unlikely to ever see his like again. What he did that the others don't do was try to understand the play. He also knew what acting was.

What terrifies you?

There are a lot of things I'm troubled by. I am troubled by the idea that Circle Rep won't get a decent theatre, a larger theatre, and we need it desperately. What terrifies me is not being able to work. I'm at that age when most American playwrights stop, or start getting very strange. I have to focus now on the Arthur Millers and the ones who didn't stop and who didn't get very strange. Not being able to have another play put on, not writing another play, is always looming over you; it always has, because you don't know where in the hell it comes from. Flippantly, I say I never should have started this because now people expect me to continue doing it and I don't know what I'm doing. I never knew how to write a play to begin with and now they expect me to write another one. But beneath that, I really don't know where it comes from, and I really don't know if that muse is going to continue to buzz around and talk to me or not.

I really can't do much of anything else. I'm not a decent teacher; I can't stand up in front of people and talk, and I can't lecture. I suppose I could run an antiques store, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun. So the idea of not being able to work terrifies me. I don't mean getting senile; that just happens. But until that point, not finding the next play scares me. I very often know what I want to write. I know what a play looks like and sounds like and generally should be, but I don't have any specifics at all. Getting the specifics is the entire thing, and so not being able to do that is very surprising.

I've never been able to write something just because I wanted to write something for someone. I was going to write something for Liz Sturges for years before I came up with Aunt Lottie. Finally, when I came up with Aunt Lottie. Talley & Son started with the image of a house where no one smokes: they smoke outside, they don't smoke inside. And they don't swear. Here is Liz Sturges walking through the room, smoking, saying, “Oh, kiss my ass.” I didn't know another thing about it, and then it turned into one of the Talley plays. I grabbed onto that image so gratefully because I'd been wanting to write something for Liz Sturges for about ten years. The drill is to find a character, then say, “Who can play that?” and then aim the writing at a challenge to that actor or take advantage of something that they do very well. That's the method now. There's an actor in the lab now who's one of the great discoveries of our time. I think he's like discovering Jeff Daniels or discovering Bill Hurt or any of the other actors who have gone on to become very famous at Circle Rep. I want very much to write something for him, but I haven't been able to come up with anything because it's not the process. The process is finding the character and then finding the actor.

Philip Middleton Williams (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12788

SOURCE: Williams, Philip Middleton. “Talley's Folly: The ‘Virtually Perfect’ Play,” and “A Tale Told and Talley & Son: The Last of the Talleys?” In A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason and the Circle Repertory Theatre, pp. 73-103. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1993.

[In the following essay, Williams explores the origin and development of the second and third Talley plays: Talley's Folly and A Tale Told (revised as Talley & Son.)]

In a sense, Marshall W. Mason was responsible for Talley's Folly. It was his rehearsal technique of improvisation and character exploration that led Lanford Wilson to create the tale of the wooing of young Sally Talley by her suitor, Matt Friedman.

When the work [5th of July] was in rehearsal, in order to help Helen Stenborg play her role as the widowed Sally Talley Friedman, he made up a biography for her deceased husband, Matt, “a history for her to draw on.” As he created that history, it began to grow into a play. In his mind the character of Matt took the shape of the actor Judd Hirsch, who has been a hotel clerk in Hot l Baltimore. The author told Stenborg that, if she wanted to, she could think of Hirsch as her dead husband. It was Hirsch's ashes that she carried back home to Lebanon. As Wilson remembers, “When Judd came to see 5th of July, I said, ‘You're in the box!’”


If the germ of the idea for the play came from the Circle Rep company, then the format of the play is based on a play far more familiar to the theatre audience. The atmosphere in the beginning of the play is very similar to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which Wilson, tongue firmly planted in cheek, freely admits.

I didn't think I had been influenced by Our Town specifically. Some of Wilder's stage tricks, yes, but not really by Our Town. I was shocked when I reread the play. The Stage Manager's opening speech was completely stolen from Matt's first speech in my play Talley's Folly. I could sue. And it was totally unconscious. That's being influenced.


(If Wilson did not see the similarities between his play and Our Town, at least one critic did. Walter Kerr noted in his review in the New York Times on May 4, 1979, how Matt Friedman, “like the stage manager in ‘Our Town’ … affectionately and theatrically welcomes us to the boathouse” [26].)

Talley's Folly is a two-character play about the romance between Sally Talley and Matt Friedman. It takes place on the night of July 4, 1944 in the Talley boathouse located on the river in Lebanon, Missouri. The boathouse is a large Victorian monstrosity that the locals have dubbed “Talley's Folly.” Matt is an accountant from St. Louis who met Sally at a local hospital where she worked as a nurse's aide. Both are lonely people, considered outcasts by society: Sally because she is a thirty-one year old spinster, the black sheep of the family, and Matt because he is a Jew. During this evening, as Matt tries to woo Sally, bits and pieces of their world are revealed. Sally tells of her sheltered and stifling life in the small town, and Matt tells her how his family suffered and were driven out of Europe by World War II. In spite of the vast differences in culture and background, they discover that they may have something in common.

Wilson's style in this play is different than any of the other plays in the Talley cycle. Indeed, it is different than any other play he has written. Aside from the Our Town-quality of the play, the play is straightforward in its purpose, which is defined by Matt, who addresses the audience in much the same manner as the Stage Manager does in Wilder's play.

(Enters in front of the stage. MATT FRIEDMAN is forty-two, dark, and rather large. Warm and unhurried, he has a definite talent for mimicry. In his voice there is still a trace of a German-Jewish accent, of which he is probably unaware. He speaks to the audience.) They tell me that we have ninety-seven minutes here tonight—without intermission. So if that means anything to anybody; if you think you'll need a drink of water or anything …
You know, a year ago I drove Sally home from a dance; and while we were standing on the porch up at the house, we looked down to the river and saw this silver flying thing rise straight up and zip off. We came running down to the river, we thought the Japanese had landed some amazing new flying machine, but all we found was the boathouse here and—uh, that was enough.
I'll just point out some of the facilities till everybody gets settled in. If everything goes well for me tonight, this should be a waltz, one-two-three, one-two-three; a no-holds-barred romantic story, and since I'm not the romantic type, I'm going to need the whole valentine here to help me: the woods, the willows, the vines, the moonlight, the band—there's a band that plays tonight, over in the park. The trees, the berries, the breeze, the sounds: water and crickets, frogs, dogs, the light, the bees, working all night.

[28, 3-4]

Although Wilson's inspiration for the play may have come from working with the actors at Circle Rep, the writing process proved difficult from Mason's point of view as a director.

Lanford loves Talley's Folly more than I do. It's virtually a perfect play. From a director's point of view it's not as interesting as the other plays because you have only the two characters. Also, I've done the play five times, and I'm a little tired of it. With the two characters you come back night after night in a long run, and you know what Judd's doing, you know what Trish [Hawkins] is doing, and I've seen it; whereas I never got tired of watching Fifth of July. There's a whole ensemble of people on stage; somebody's always doing something a little bit differently. It's like a basketball game—they play with each other. With two characters, it's harder. Also Talley's Folly is so much a plot play, in a sense you really watch everything slide into play and (click) there it is. And when you know the end, you say, “All right, there they go again.” It slides into place: so what? When you see it the first time and it slides into place and you get it, it's an extraordinary experience, but Fifth of July is much more satisfying to me to watch.
In the first draft of Talley's Folly there was very little conflict in it. There was no presence of the offstage at all. Matt knew right from the beginning what the whole problem was and he was just trying to get Sally to confess. That wasn't very interesting. The changes were not huge changes in a way—they were subtle, small, but they made all the difference in the world. For Matt not to know, for Matt to be discovering along with the audience what Sally's problem was, left him so much more vulnerable and therefore likeable. When he knew everything, it didn't work. But we did that work in rehearsal. Actually, before we began rehearsal. Lanford gave me the first draft of the play and we read it and I said, “Sorry, there's no suspense here.” He was really angry with me. I think in terms of the writing I don't think Lanford's ever been quite as angry with me as he was over Talley's Folly because he really thought he'd written a wonderful little play, and I just said there's all kinds of things wrong with it; you've got to do this, you've got to do that, and he, very grudgingly, did them. After the fact, I'm sure Lanford looks back on this and says, “My God, of course.” It really was necessary, but I had to sort of force him to do that work because he didn't want to work on it.


Wilson apparently has come around to seeing Mason's point of view on the play. When asked about comparing the differences between the two drafts, he wrote, “It would be interesting to compare the two. A small change changed the nature of the play, the kind of play it was. Very strange” (29).

For the purpose of this study, several attempts have been made to obtain a copy of the first draft. In an undated letter received on February 6, 1988, Wilson said he thought he had a copy of it at his home in Sag Harbor, New York, and promised to look for it. It did not arrive, and a subsequent telephone conversation with Mason in April revealed that if a copy of the first draft did exist (and he was not sure that one did), it was not accessible. He also said that he doubted Wilson kept a copy of the play due to the disagreements that they had had over their differences on the play (9).

That Mason and Wilson disagreed over the first draft of Talley's Folly is not surprising, but it does indicate that they were, even when they were at odds, becoming more and more aware of each other's abilities and roles in the production of a play. They had progressed from the time when Wilson's work was met with unbridled enthusiasm by Mason and the rewriting was done in rehearsal. There was more testing, more caution. It is not a poor reflection on their relationship but rather an understanding that, perhaps, with Mason telling Wilson “You've got to change this” in a script, the work would improve before it went into rehearsal. Mason never told him specifically what to write; he understood the process of playwriting and knew that putting words in the mouths of the actors was not his job, but his encouragement and criticism provided the impetus for Wilson to make changes in the script. And Wilson also began to see that the process of staging and rehearsal is as much an effort for the director and the actors as writing is for him. He proved this to himself by watching a tech rehearsal of William G. Hoffman's As Is, directed by Mason in 1985.

I had a very wonderful experience when I came into a tech rehearsal of As Is and everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. The actors were … well, it was a tech rehearsal, the actors weren't acting. I hadn't seen any rehearsals. I hadn't seen anything about it, and I didn't know what it was supposed to be. But I do know Marshall's work and I had seen the play months ago in a little workshop in a very abbreviated one-act kind of form and I'd been kind of moved by it, and I knew the actors, and I knew they could do it. But what I'd seen that night was a total and complete piece of shit. I said to Marshall, “You understand, of course, I can't comment on anything that happened tonight because they didn't do it,” and he said, “Of course not.” And then he proceeded to tell them how they were … you know, with the attitude they'd gone into that evening with, that they were incapable of dealing with the material; they were not … they did not have the integrity to deal with the material if they were going to do anything like they had done that night. That was a very stiff speech. He gave them a very stiff speech, and it was all about integrity and all about where's your circumstances; all about basic acting things and where do you place yourself in life to come and do this. But really I hadn't expected very much from the production because what I had seen was so impossibly incomprehensible that … I knew it was going to be better, but. … So I went back two nights later and was a basket case. Everything that I'd ever hoped and dreamed would be there (plus about forty percent more) was all there, and I was just wiped completely out and …
We, of course, were extremely annoyed. I almost beat you up.
Oh, of course.
I was so angry with you because you … after all you'd been through that you didn't understand that we were in a tech rehearsal and where we were in the process …
I did understand. I said I didn't understand it all. I mean, I didn't understand that much …
Not to the extent that it was going to be … that we were in no trouble at all and Lanford came, and so it was a performance. And of course it wasn't at all. There's just no way to explain to anybody …
Not even …
Not even somebody who knows as well as he does, no matter how many times …
That this is not what you're gonna see.
That's right. You say to someone, “This is just a rehearsal, this is not a performance.” And they'll always go, “Oh, yes, yes. I know that. I'm very experienced in the theatre.”
I swear it.
“I can't comment …”
Nobody can do it.
“I can't comment on it cause you didn't do it.” And everyone says, “No, they didn't do it tonight so we can't comment on it,” but really they'd no concept of how good it was going to be. Or how good it already was, it's because they hadn't done it.
I was so annoyed with you because you kept looking over at the wrong place, totally missing the wonderful moments that we had done; he was looking over somewhere else going I don't know what. You were totally looking in the wrong place a bunch of times in the production. I kept thinking, “No wonder he didn't see anything 'cause he wasn't looking where he should have been.”
But two nights later I looked exactly where I was supposed to. This is a very delicate sort of thing. Also, it takes that overriding vision and drive and the stick-to-itiveness. And tiny little details over and over.


It was the little details that made Talley's Folly work, first at the Circle Rep theatre in May 1979, and later, after a run in repertory in the summer of 1979, on Broadway in February 1980. The majority of the reviews from both New York productions were excellent. Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post after the opening on May 4, 1979:

In some respects, Lanford Wilson is the luckiest playwright in the country—he has his own drama company. He was one of the founders of the company, along with Marshall W. Mason the artistic director, and others, almost exactly ten years ago, and although there are now eleven playwrights “in residence” with the Circle Rep, Wilson is the most prominent and frequently performed. … It [Talley's Folly] is perhaps the simplest, most lyrical play Wilson has so written—a funny, sweet, touching and marvelously written and contrived love poem for an apple and an orange. … Wilson's characters are totally credible, they seem to have just walked through a door from life. And as they slowly tell one another their life stories, they evoke not simply the awakening and love and respect, the confirmation of the emotional chemistry between them, but also paint a vivid picture of America. It is social history with a dramatist's insight.

Mason's direction is faultless—not a beat or inflection is missed.


Many of the reviews noted Mason's work. Douglas Watt in the Daily News said he “has directed the pair with a leaping imagination and affection realizing the author's every intention” (31). John Beaufort wrote that “Mason's insightful staging makes imaginative use of the eccentric, long-abandoned boathouse which John Lee Beatty has designed for this love duet” (32).

Reactions to the Broadway staging of the play in February 1980 were much the same. Many of the critics who reviewed the play in May 1979 returned and re-reviewed it, and again they gave it high praise. This time they paid more attention to the play itself rather than the performances of Judd Hirsch as Matt and Trish Hawkins as Sally. And at least two reviews noted that Mason's initial desire to build suspense in the play was correct, if not completely successful. Jack Kroll, writing for Newsweek, said, “Talley's Folly, for all its warmth and charm, is not free from a certain emotional patness: Matt is rather too glibly made a child of the Holocaust, and Sally's dark secret all too conveniently fits in with Matt's confession” (33). Walter Kerr said much the same in the New York Times: “The twin secrets, when they at last come out, are a bit pat; they make the pair fit just a little too well” (27). The only completely negative review of the play came from Dennis Cunningham of WCBS-TV, who called it “this silly, pointless little half-written thing” (34).

Talley's Folly represents the most concise example of the solidity of the collaboration of Wilson and Mason. The process of writing the play came from within the Circle Rep company, devoid of the jigsaw bits and pieces that Wilson fit together for Fifth of July The characters grew out of characters already established and strongly based on people he knew: Matt Friedman was written specifically for Judd Hirsch. Mason's character exploration technique led to questions, and Wilson tried to answer them. And, since the focus at Circle Rep has been, in the words of Mason, “the play always” (10), Wilson tried to write the play exactly as he saw the answers.

We've been doing these shows at Circle Rep the way we want to, and not looking at anything beyond that. I mean, I thought we were going to get creamed for Talley's Folly. I thought it was going to be the most unpopular thing I'd ever written. There was nothing compromised in the writing. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I couldn't believe it when people liked it.


Talley's Folly is Wilson's best testimony that he has progressed as a writer from his earlier works. It is a play that demonstrates he can build characters over a sustained period of time (“They tell me we have ninety-seven minutes here tonight—without intermission” [23, 3]) and maintain those characters without gimmicks, interruption or the collage technique. It requires a thorough understanding of both the needs of the actors and the audience. He achieved this progress in a deceptively simply play. But the play is anything but simplistic, and here again the parallel to Wilder's Our Town is suggested. Wilson himself noted, “let's not be blinded by the homey cute surface from the fact that ‘Our Town’ is a deadly cynical and acidly accurate play” (25). Talley's Folly is anything but cynical. In Our Town, Wilder seems to be pointing out the frailties and trivialities that measure human life. Wilson cherishes them and builds his play around them. The people of Grover's Corners seem stereotypical: no surprises, and Wilder lulls us into their world and their problems by assuming that we know nearly everything about them as the Stage Manager leads us through their lives. Wilson, on the other hand, gives us two people whose lives would not fit neatly into a stereotype and by that fact shows us that the only way for them to find happiness is with each other. Talley's Folly may resemble Our Town, but the playwrights' views of life are poles apart.

In Talley's Folly, Wilson has achieved his most concise writing to this point. His ability to focus on character and relationship in a very limited situation is a marked contrast to his earlier works such as The Rimers of Eldritch or even The Hot l Baltimore. Here is the blending of light romance and the creation of very real characters.

The play is not all light romance. Wilson does have some sober touches. That Matt Friedman should try to court Sally after being escorted from the porch by Sally's brother with a shotgun may add some humor to the play, but he is all too aware of the similarity of this action to his own family's treatment in Europe. Sally's love for Matt is not only based on the rebellion she feels against her family, but also on her respect for this man whom she believes is risking his life to see her, even if she considers herself damaged and unworthy of his attention. And so, while the romance is sweet between these two outcasts, there is a bitter flavor that goes along with it. There is no surprise in the outcome of the play; Matt tells the audience in the opening of the play that this is a romance, and those familiar with Fifth of July know that this is a love that will last a lifetime.

While Wilson and Mason may have disagreed about the first draft, the results certainly show that they worked out their differences. Not only was the play satisfactory to audiences and critics, it won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for drama. That in itself indicates most effectively that Wilson and Mason's collaboration had reached a point where they were able to work together in the strongest possible way: each depending on the other and learning what was needed to achieve success. The play has also passed Wilson's own acid test: he has no plans to rewrite it as he did with Fifth of July. In a pre-Broadway opening interview, he said, “this is the best I'll ever be able to write it” (14).

After the success of Talley's Folly, Wilson began to explore the Talley family in more detail. His next play, A Tale Told, took another step back in the family's history. It proved to be the most complex of the three Talley plays, and perhaps the least successful. The next chapter explores its origins and evolution to Talley & Son.

When Talley's Folly opened on Broadway, Mel Gussow, in his article for the May 1980 edition of Horizon magazine, noted that the Talley family history was not completed. Wilson intended to write more about this collection of characters.

Three more plays taking place in and around the Talley house are expected from the prolific author. One, The War in Lebanon, will deal with what was happening in the main house while Matt was courting Sally. Another will offer a portrait of Whistler Talley, the dreamer who designed the gewgawed curio of a boathouse … and the final play will take place around 1865, at the time of the Civil War, when the house was built. The resulting quintet should offer a comprehensive portrait of American provincial life.


By August of 1985, Wilson had written the third of the Talley plays, Talley & Son. It was in production in Saratoga Springs, New York, when the author of this study was invited by Wilson and Mason to see the show and afterwards meet with them for an interview. I was invited to a post-show reception and was introduced to the cast of the play. After the reception, Mason and Wilson took me to an apartment (rented as housing for company members) where the interview was conducted. It was well after midnight by the time the interview began in one of the bedrooms in the apartment. Mason sat at the study desk. Wilson, with a bit of a cold and still recovering from an attack of sciatica in March, reclined on the bed. In spite of the late hour, both men were animated during the conversation; they seemed to enjoy recalling their work together.

Wilson's plays about the Talley family were written in reverse order from their fictional chronology; that is, the first play written, 5th of July, is set in the most recent time, 1977. Then, with each succeeding play, Wilson worked backwards in time: Talley's Folly and Talley & Son are set in 1944. Wilson was asked how he envisioned that the story of the family might continue. The recollections he had about the origins of the story tell not only about the emergence of the Talley plays, but also reveal a great deal about how Wilson approaches writing a play. He looks at the overall scope of what he hopes to say in the play—for example, the affect of war on American society—and then brings it down to the personal level of dealing with each member of the Talley family.

When you started working on this trilogy, did you begin with a central idea of a theme and develop it that way, or did you just let them evolve from 5th [Fifth of July] to Talley's Folly to Talley & Son?
5th was first and doing research for 5th, I realized that there was a possibility of doing several of these plays, and thinking about …
Actually, very early on, I think certainly by the time of Talley's Folly … I'm thinking even that was, a matter of fact, that was before you wrote Talley's Folly, maybe the first announcement of Talley's Folly, it was called The War in Lebanon, wasn't it?
That's right, I was going to ask you. …
Was it Talley's Folly or A Tale Told? In any case, there was an early idea of writing a series of plays about how the war affected …
The war affected small …
The American society. Loss of values and ideals.
And it's never made clear really which war.
Oh, through each one.
Through each one.
Kept changing, kept changing.
Because I know that … I can't remember; what interview was that in Horizon, was that Mel Gussow, in Horizon?
Horizon, yes.
You talked about it with him just after Talley's Folly had opened and you're saying there was another play.
First it was called … was that 5th of July that was called Regarding the Bosom of Abraham?
No, that was this play.
That was this play. First it was called Regarding the Bosom of Abraham, and then it was called A Tale Told, and now finally I think we've got it with Talley & Son. 'Course, finally we're talking about generations, and we're talking about father and son. It turns out to be a father and son play. And a father and son, and a father and son, and a father and son, and father and son. It goes way. … And it becomes, in effect, a father and son between the father in this play and his son Kenny in the next play as well. You can see the relationship. You can see it just strikes lightning from Buddy to Kenny 'cause they're about the same age. And it just goes zing-a zang-a, zing-a zang-a between those two, but God, are they opposites.
Are you done with the Talleys, do you think?
No, working on this has made me very curious about … There's a play that's got Whistler and Nora, the black cook, and …
Carl Saper, the guy who cut down the walnut trees.
You could go back to the Civil War.
We were going to go back to the Civil War. But that's a whole different play.
This play's [the unwritten one] the First World War. Carl Saper and Stewart, the son that died. The first son who died, and probably Old Man Talley will be in that as a fifty year old man. Or forty.
You're going to make the Star Wars thing seem like …
Oh, the ultimate comment was I went out the other day and heard … this is the first comment, I went out to hear what people were talking about and the woman was explaining to her company, “No, no, No; I understand there's three of them. It's a mini-series.”
I turned right around and went back in and went, “Oh my God, this trilogy is just degenerated into a mini-series,” and I went right back in and right back into the dressing room and didn't listen to another word.
There are probably two more. Probably Timmy …
We keep talking about two more.
Nothing beyond Fifth of July?
Oh, no, no, no; I'm not sure of that, because I can see …
Get another war going …
Oh, God, let's hope not. But, I can see Shirley dictating the whole five plays. I can see Shirley with possibly Jed in, say, 1995. I can see them talking. But it's very over tea. It's very Shirley rattling on over tea. Shirley is a writer.
An epilogue, I think.
Yeah. Shirley is a writer, and she's rattling on over tea. I can see that very much. And Jed has left the gardens to the city.
And the title of the play is What Happened After.
Well, I don't know what it is. I can see the gardens left to the city, which is exactly what should happen to them. He rebuilt them and got the agricultural students involved in keeping them up and left it to the school and the city. I can see that as quite the way it should be. Quite the way the gardens should end up, and the Talley estate becomes a public park. I can quite see that.
It would be very nice.
And Shirley lives there, maybe in the garage. In an apartment that she's made in the garage and writes. And yells at the people who come and peek in the windows when they're looking at the garden.
Aged writer. A crabbed sort of writer. A monologue for Clara. …
[MASON laughs.]


Talley & Son emerged from the same type of investigation of character that had initially created Talley's Folly. Wilson's interest in the rest of the clan may yet lead to the other plays, and where they will lead is anyone's guess. However, the production history of this story of the Talley family reveals a good deal about Wilson's efforts to improve his work and, with the help of Mason, clarify the characters he has created.

Talley & Son was first produced as A Tale Told in 1981 at the Circle Repertory Theatre (35). In the winter of 1985 Wilson began rewriting the play in preparation for a production at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York. By the time it was ready to open, the title had been changed to Talley & Son (36). The play was in performance at SPAC from August 7 through 24 of 1985, and then moved to the Circle Rep Theatre in New York, where it opened on October 22 and ran in repertory with Tomorrow's Monday by Paul Osborn.

The Talleys are a rich family who got that way through sharp business practices and parsimony. Calvin Talley, who is the son of the man who built the house and boathouse, is in his nineties and at death's door as the family gathers on July 4, 1944 to celebrate the holiday and privately prepare for the elder Mr. Talley's funeral. His son Eldon (inexplicably called “Joe” on one page of the first draft) is in charge of the family garment business and has received a takeover offer from a conglomerate in Louisiana. He has three children: Sally; Kenneth, nicknamed Buddy, who is serving in the Army in Europe and is home on emergency leave (and is also the father of Ken and June in Fifth of July); and Timmy, who is in the Marines. His partner, Harley Campbell (whose funeral Sally attends in Act II of Fifth of July) is opposed to the offer. Old Mr. Talley doesn't trust a conglomerate, but he knows a fortune when he smells it and maneuvers his son into the sale of the business. During the evening the family receives the news that Timmy was killed in action on the Pacific island of Saipan. In the midst of dealing with this tragedy, Viola Platt, the family's washerwoman, makes it clear to Eldon that she expects him to “do what's right” for her daughter, Eldon's illegitimate child. At the same time, Sally is down at the boathouse being courted by Matt Friedman (detailed in Talley's Folly). The other characters in the play include Buddy's wife Olive, Eldon's wife Netta, and his sister Lottie, who is dying from cancer. She represents the good side of the family: she encourages Sally to marry Matt, she stands up to her father (Wilson said that one of the reasons he included Lottie was based on his desire to have a woman walk across the stage and say “Oh, kiss my ass” [37]), and she shares the stage with Timmy at the end of the play.

A draft of the script of A Tale Told, made available by Mason, reveals some interesting information about Wilson's writing habits. Notes on the draft indicate that Wilson wrote the play in Sag Harbor on Long Island, where he has a house, and New York City. The script has the date March 16, 1981 written on the last page and the script is typed on two different typewriters: the first forty-nine pages appear to have been written on an older machine using a rather faded ink ribbon, and the remainder written on a newer machine (probably the IBM Selectric that Wilson has in his office at the Circle Rep) with a carbon ribbon.

Wilson's writing format uses a technique that has become traditional among many playwrights. The character's name is centered over his line, and stage directions are indented and contained in parentheses. A typical section looks like this:

Thank you, very much. Mr. Young, I'm sure you'll make your point.
Thank you very much.
That means he's finished with you, honey.
Is that what that means? I'm sorry, I can't help you; I don't know nothing about it.
(SHE exits)

[38, 11-20]

Wilson's use of stage direction is very sparse. Compared to published versions of his other works, this draft has nothing more than entrances, exits, and indicators to whom someone is speaking or where (from offstage, for example). This draft supports the idea that published versions of his plays are based on Wilson's own addition of directions once the play has been staged by Mason.

I haven't written a stage direction in I-don't-know-how-long, because I've found that Marshall does better stage directions than I do. When a play is published, I find it very difficult to go back and add stage directions that will help someone read the script.
But Lance is very fair about it. When he does go back and write those directions, he really limits it. He puts down things that are germane to the play but doesn't rip off the director's work. There are some writers, on the other hand, who mark down every cross and every piece of business. I recently talked to a young director who was about to do a project in some college somewhere of a play I had directed. I told him, “The first thing you must do is cross out all the stage directions.” In that case, the playwright had written down everything I had told the actors. Every piece of business had been written down and put into the published script. I felt that if that young director were to have followed them, he would have been very limited by them. All those directions are really limiting on the imaginations of the other artists who do subsequent productions of the play.
Of course, if it's germane to the action of the play—like “He falls dead”—you put it in. But I'll only put in an interpretive stage direction like “Smiling”; to aid the actor if the line it refers to could be interpreted in two different ways; if the line sounds harsh and I really mean it ironically, for instance. I only put in stage directions where it's absolutely necessary to make something clear.


When A Tale Told opened at the Circle Rep on June 11, 1981, it was given very mixed reviews. Frank Rich in the New York Times wrote,

While Lanford Wilson is one of our theater's very best writers, his new play, which opened at the Circle Repertory Company last night, seems written out of obligation rather than inspiration. No, his perfect ear for American speech hasn't failed him, and neither has his crack director, Marshall W. Mason. But this time Mr. Wilson's lush language and Mr. Mason's flawless staging have been applied to a theatrical vacuum.


Several reviews compared the play with The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman. One called it a weak melodrama, chiding the play for not playing the complexities of the household to the hilt (40). John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor, however, took the comparison to Wilson's credit and complimented him for making the play work in that fashion (41).

Overall, the reaction to the play was either very positive (Clive Barnes of the New York Post said “It may very well be the author's best play to date” [42]) or very negative (Douglas Watt concluded his review by saying, “Wilson has been quoted as saying that although he'll next turn to other subjects, he's by no means finished with the Talleys; but I have the feeling I am” [40].)

The events of the evening of July 4, 1944 focus on establishing the relationships in the family. Like a Chekov play, Wilson is interested in watching the people as well as telling the story. In rewriting A Tale Told into Talley & Son, Wilson used many of the devices he had learned in rewriting Fifth of July. Shifting parts of scenes and changing dialogue brought the play into clearer focus. For example, in A Tale Told, the ghost of Tim Talley, killed in action in World War II, inhabits the play, yet he does not speak during the first act. Then, in Act II (the announcement of his death ends Act I), he has a series of monologues that detail his death and his view of war and his family. In Talley & Son, however, he appears in Act I as a narrator, almost as Matt Friedman does in Talley's Folly. His role in the play is clarified, and his purpose is more lighthearted; instead of wandering through like the ghost of Hamlet's father, he escorts the audience like a tour guide through moments of the play. In Talley & Son, we are also introduced to Sally in the opening lines; she is leaving the house to go meet Matt Friedman down at the boathouse (which is Talley's Folly). In A Tale Told, Sally makes a brief appearance at the end of the play. As in Fifth of July, Wilson's reworking did not change the overall focus of the play. The changes made in the play from 1981 to 1985 sharpen the focus on the characters.

While in performance at Saratoga, Talley & Son, in true Mason and Wilson fashion, underwent revision as it progressed. By the time it reached the Circle Rep at New York, some changes had been made again from the production at Saratoga. These included reworking Timmy's opening monologue and the restructuring of the scene at the end of the play where Timmy and Lottie are alone on the stage. Robert Macnaughton, who played the role of Timmy in Saratoga and New York, described the changes and the process.

When we last talked, you had just finished two weeks' run of the show up in Saratoga, and I saw it before Lanford changed the ending. …
He'd changed it several times.
Am I wrong in thinking that your opening monologue is …
Shorter, considerably shorter.
Tell me the process of going through the rewrites.
What they did was … they'd call a rehearsal for that afternoon before, before the performance, and they said, “Well, we did a little bit with the dialogue in the end,” or “we changed a little bit,” and it wasn't bad at all. It was really easy, in fact. And also because they didn't much, except for that new speech was a little … I had to work on that a lot … in the end, for example, they just shifted around the lines. They're basically the same lines. And then there's one new line added.
How was that done? Was that Marshall coming in and saying “We've got some new work,” or was it Lanford coming in and saying, “We've worked together …”
They would both do it. Marshall came up one time with something that he thought Lanford would approve of. He sort of restaged it and said because “we discussed this,” but they hadn't really written any lines, so Marshall came up with some lines that he thought that Lanford would like, and we did them for one performance, and then Lanford said, “that's good, I like the intent of that line, but here's …” and he would re-write the line. For example, the last line of the play now …
Is what?
“Boy.” And then Joyce Reehling Christopher, who's playing Lottie, says, “What?” and I say, “America won the war today. We all go off. By the time they get back, the country's changed so much I don't imagine they'll recognize it.” It's the last line. And what Marshall suggested, you know; I guess he discussed it with Lanford, but they hadn't really come up with any lines. What Marshall wanted was, “Boy, by the time the other guys get back, the country's changed so much I don't think they'll recognize it.” And then Lanford just came up with the more tailored version of it. … It went through six or seven different changes. And we'd try 'em out before an audience and stuff and get comments from people, and they'd talk to people. We tried the last line in the play being, for a while, being, “Good night, Mr. Talley.” Saratoga's a perfect opportunity to do that. We had … y'know, without the pressure of trying to do it opening night or something in New York. They tried that out, the last line being “Good night, Mr. Talley”; they tried me coming to the window and her [Lottie] saying, “Oh, it's wonderful, it's wonderful,” and then me just going off and putting on my helmet and saying, “America won the Second World War today,” echoing the first line, and then just staying there. They finally came up with the ending. Also what's changed about it, which is really nice for me, that he actually exits now, so you get the sense, I feel, that he's done what he's come here for, so he's finished and he's done what he needed to do, and now he's going to go off.


Although it is not recorded in detail as to how many changes Wilson and Mason made in the final scene of the play during rehearsal, the difference between the two versions of the play shows a great deal of variation in tone and character study. In A Tale Told, Wilson ends the play with Sally returning from the boathouse, ready to run off the St. Louis with Matt Friedman. Only her aunt Lottie sees her and speaks with her. She does not get a chance to confront her father or anyone else in the family (nor is she aware of Timmy's death). The end of A Tale Told went as follows:

Lottie, don't stay up all night, now, you try to get some sleep.
(SHE is by the window, takes down flag with two stars)
I don't want this display in the window anymore. I don't want that. And you take down the one that's in the window at the factory. I'm going to sleep in Tim's room tonight. Day after tomorrow I'll move my things in there. I'm not getting out of bed tomorrow. I don't want anyone mooning over me; I just want you to know I'm not coming downstairs. And you tell Buddy I'm not going to the train to see him off, and I'm not writing any more V-mail letters to him in Belgium or France or wherever they send him. When he comes home, fine, but until he comes home I consider that he's gone, too. I'm not going to sit home and hope he'll be back.
And I want you to lock up the house tonight.
(Finding his voice)
Now, no need for that … we've always—
(Still level)
I want the house locked tonight. You shut these windows and you find the keys where ever they are and you lock the house. Now you come up when you're ready, I'm going to bed.
(SHE goes upstairs)
If I lock the doors, I'd lock Sally out.
I'll let her in.
(ELDON locks the windows by LOTTIE; he would like to say something, but can find nothing to say. HE takes a large ring of keys, finds one, goes to the French windows, locks them and goes out the door toward the kitchen. SALLY sneaks down the stairs as HE comes back through the house. HE has been shutting off lights as he goes)
(Sotto voce to SALLY)
(SALLY darts back up stairs. To ELDON)
Don't forget the windows in the dining room.
What a bother.
(HE goes. SALLY sneaks down to the hall)
You call me here tomorrow and I want to hear the operator say I got a collect call for Charlotte Talley from Sally Friedman.
(SHE exits. ELDON comes into the hall and locks the front door with a loud click)
You'll let Sally in?
I'll be here.
I'm going up then.
(HE goes up the stairs; the lights from the upstairs hall goes out. TIM has entered the room. A long pause)
(To TIM)
It's embarrassing how they've had to let the place go, isn't it? The house hasn't been painted in four years.
TIME [sic]:
Yeah, it's beginning to show it. The yard's pretty bad.
They had it cleared out a couple of times. Hoboes came looking for a handout, Eldon told them if they'd clear out the garden they could have supper. Then the last two years, everybody's got a job somewhere. There's no one left to handle it. They just mow the lawn and let the rest of it go. It's no good to anybody, anyway.
It's a nice old house.
(Looks at LOTTIE who is holding her breath)
You in pain?
(In pain)
No, no, I got a phone call coming tomorrow, I got to be in good shape for that. A person could get from day to day for thirty years looking forward to a phone call.
(The pain goes away, enormous sigh)
Oh, lord.
Oh, wonderful.
Wonderful, wonderful.

[38, II:32-34]

As Macnaughton said, Wilson and Mason wanted to give the audience a feeling of completion at the end of the play and add a sense of continuation for Eldon. The rewrites made during the production at Saratoga and in New York allowed Eldon to return to the stage to see Sally as she left the house and for him to come to terms with her elopement. She also makes it clear to him that she understands what he is going through in assuming the role of patriarch of the family. The story has a more complete ending. The published version of Talley & Son ends this way:

Lottie, don't stay up all night now, you try to get some sleep. (She is by the window, takes down the flag with two stars) I don't want this display in the window anymore. I don't want that. And you take down the one that's in the window at the factory, and the one at the bank. I'm going to sleep in Tim's room tonight. Day after tomorrow I'll move my things in there. I'm not getting out of bed tomorrow. I don't want anyone mooning over me; I just want you to know I'm not coming downstairs.
There'll be people coming tomorrow to pay their respects—
I'm not coming downstairs tomorrow. And you tell Buddy that I'm not going to the train to see him off, and I'm not writing any more V-mail letters to him in Belgium or France or Italy or wherever they send him. When he comes home, fine, but until he comes home I consider that he's gone, too. I'm not going to sit home and hope he'll be back. (Pause) And I want you to lock up the house tonight.
(Finding his voice) Now, no need for that …
(Still level) I want the house locked tonight.
There's never been a door locked in this town.
You shut those windows and you find the keys, wherever they are, and you lock the house. Now I'm going to bed. (She goes upstairs)
If I lock the door, I'll lock Sally out.
I'll be here. (ELDON would like to say something, but can find nothing to say. He exits to the office as SALLY starts to sneak down the stairs. To SALLY) Wait! (SALLY goes back up the stairs. ELDON reenters. He goes to the French windows and locks them. He and LOTTIE have been shutting off lights as he goes) Don't forget the windows in the dining room.
(Mumbling): What a bother. (He goes)
(Calling up the stairs): Sally!
(SALLY sneaks down the hall)
We'll have you up to visit us in St. Louis soon as we can.
No, don't worry about me …
And we'll be down for a visit next spring. I don't know how the family will like that.
They'll just have to lump it.
(ELDON reenters and stops when he sees SALLY and LOTTIE. SALLY turns to him)
I'm going to St. Louis tonight.
You going to live with that man?
I'm going to marry Matt Friedman, yes.
It's not like you to run away without telling the family off.
That was my idea.
You sure you're doing the right thing?
Oh, I'm sure.
Sometimes you think you're doing the right thing but it doesn't work out that way.
It'll work out.
I hope so, Sally.
(They embrace)
Sally. You call me tomorrow and I want to hear that operator say I have a collect call for Charlotte Talley from Sally Friedman.
Goodbye. (She exits)
She'll call you tomorrow?
Someone has to tell her about her brother.
I'll do that. (She takes the keys)
Well … Good night, Lottie.
Good night, Mr. Talley. (ELDON stands for a moment, then exits. Pause. LOTTIE and TIMMY look out the window) Dad's right about one thing; everything's gone to the dogs. The house has needed painting for four years.
Yeah, it's beginning to show it. The garden's pretty bad.
There's no one now to take care of it. (She unlocks the French windows)
It's a nice old house. It's a lot smaller than I remember.
(Opens the French windows—a distant band is playing) The band's playing down across the river. Oh, that's wonderful. (A deep breath) Oh, that's wonderful. What is it, honey?
America won the war today. We all go off; by the time they get back, the country's changed so much I don't imagine they'll recognize it.
I know.
(TIMMY walks outside and off. LOTTIE stands alone at the windows, listening to the distant band. The music continues as the light fades)

[35, 112-115]

Both Wilson and Mason agreed that the changes in the script were necessary to improve the play. One element that was changed was the role of Timmy as narrator instead of as a presence. In the interview at Saratoga, Wilson and Mason discussed the use of such devices as a narrator like Timmy in Talley & Son or Matt in Talley's Folly. It is a technique that Wilson used before in his play, Lemon Sky. The use of a narrator underscores the belief of Wilson and Mason that whatever method can honestly convey a part of the play to the audience is a legitimate approach.

What problem does the narrator solve? Or create?
I don't know if it solves them. I just … way back when, when I first understood what theatre was, I was very excited about all the possibilities of theatre and I have never ever been absolutely as straightforward realistic as I've been accused of being and … but I've been accused of being incredibly straightforward realistic. I don't mind; that's fine. I don't particularly hate realistic theatre; I think it's absolutely great … or whatever that stuff that Chekov and Ibsen do; it doesn't bother me a bit. But anyway, I like … I started liking the idea of admitting that there's an audience there, and I had to turn off of that. …
You were deeply impressed with, I remember, with The Hostage. … Your idea of theatre was founded a lot on The Hostage.
On The Hostage and The Three-Ring Circus.
And before that, the magic of Death of a Salesman.
Death of a Salesman. I was very impressed with Next Time I'll Sing to You when they spoke right to the audience. All of the monologues from Balm in Gilead come right from Next Time I'll Sing to You, all those shaggy dog stories. I was so impressed with that. I just liked that, and so using theatre, and I don't use it as much as I could, God knows, but I like the idea of all of those various things you can do with it; that you can have someone talking in a scene and turn out and talk to the audience. It's in every toothpaste commercial you see and we don't think of it as unusual in the least. “Oh, Daddy! I really got a good checkup! And you can too if you just. …” We don't think of it. “I use Colgate and you should too.”
Back in the fifties, that radical George Burns and Gracie Allen talked to the camera and turned on his television set to watch what was going on.
Explain the stylistic motive in that. People didn't have any trouble with it at all. Also, the idea of the narrator really goes back all the way to the Greek chorus.
Of course.
The narrator has been with us since drama was invented.
And I like it. I like it. I think it's terrific. And I think it. …
Need a guide sometimes to help you through …
Every once in a while.
A priest; a chief priest to help you through the experience.
Who is the narrator, then? Who does he become? Can he really become part, a complete part of the play?
The narrator is the one, as the name implies, is the one who tells you what the story is about. The narrative.
Can he ever divorce himself from being narrator and become part of the action?
Oh, he does in Lemon Sky, I think. Very strongly. He might very well; it's a little difficult in this play, Talley & Son tonight, because he's a ghost as well as narrator, but he certainly … oh, yeah, he often can. Awfully well integrated in …
Balm in Gilead.
Yeah, Balm in Gilead.
Don't people talk to the audience and …
And then be a part of the action, right. In Tennessee's Glass Menagerie primary scenes turn out as narration. I like things where … in Balm in Gilead, where they're … where anyone in the play can suddenly become a narrator and say, “What is really happening here is …” and there are four different ones that do that.
Same thing in … to a certain extent in Serenading Louie.
In the first version of that where everyone eventually turned out and said things to the audience. I've cut those out now because I thought … I think it was a theatrical device that I was in love with at the time because I wanted to admit frankly that these people were on stage and yet I didn't really understand at the time the power of the illusion that they were not on stage, that they were in their room, and the jarring nature of it I thought was exciting and I don't find it so exciting anymore.
The audiences didn't find it …
The audiences didn't, not in that play. Not in that play they don't.
Could one say that the dramatist is, in a sense, copping out of developing the character fully and instead of explaining him through narration, letting him …
Now that's a criticism that I don't think is true. That was a criticism of Serenading Louie, and all I did was have him say the same lines to the people on stage instead of, “Now, a very interesting thing.” Can he cop out? No. It may be … I just said no, and now I'm saying yes. It was very different. In Serenading Louie I said “and she says that,” I said, “Just erase ‘to the audience’ and when she had to say “I don't really know if I loved him then, but I loved him now,” in front of the other three people, and not to the audience at all but to the other three people, she had to suddenly take responsibility for saying that, which she did not have to do before. But worse, the other three people had to take responsibility for hearing it. What that did to Lindsay Crouse was astonishing. What that did to, rather, Dianne Wiest was astonishing when I took that stage direction away. It was like she was fuckin' devastated, and it changed her whole character. So it's not copping out. It's just a very different thing. And suddenly the responsibility is different. The moment, the burden is on the characters, but I don't think that moment really said anything more. It's very different, but I don't think it said anything more to the audience than it did after I made it part of the scene.
Then it doesn't become a narration, it becomes more of an aside.
Well, that wasn't an aside. All of those things are valuable.
Look at Sam Shepard. Sam uses all these devices incessantly. And so did Wycherly and so did Sheridan. Shakespeare. Soliloquies in Shakespeare; what are they? If they're not. …
They're to us.
It can be very important. The end of Glass Menagerie … “I didn't go to the moon …” Powerful stuff.
And no one says, “Oh, well, he's copping out because he's talking to us.” No way. No way, they don't think that.
You're adding perspective. That's often what a narrator is able to do is to say, as Brecht pointed out so vividly with his theories of dramatic art. You want to keep the audience aware that the experience is more than just an illusion, because illusions are like dreams.
Reliving something.
“Oh, God, I had this dream;” but what does it mean? and what's it about? And how does it apply to my life. Those things you have to have some guidance for or some signposts.
Something to take you out for a moment. I tried doing that in Louie [Serenading Louie], but it just didn't work because it was too … I was too …
But it worked very well … I mean, it works.
Works much better in this [Talley & Son].
This play, you can imagine. Timmy doesn't need to be in this play. Cut him right out …
Yeah, cut him out.
But, would you diminish the play? Significantly.
You bet.
It makes that whole perspective that he brings to it is really important, and …
We couldn't see what we were going through during the Second World War and I'm not sure that if we just dramatized the Second World War now in a family drama that it'd be like …
This play would be a lot uglier without Timmy in it, and it's not because he softens it; it's because of the perspective he gives on it.
So that you can forget …
You understand the stress. You understand the distance. These people were going through hell. And he's just talking about his own private thing, but it distances you in a way from the … and where I think you see Olive more clearly and some of the other characters more clearly. Doesn't say a word about them, hardly, but he gives you a perspective, I would hope.


It is not uncommon for Wilson to use an individual character such as Timmy to personify an attitude such as the Second World War. He is not, on the surface, using him like a Greek choral figure—a representation of an entire army, for example—but he does make him representative of something larger. This is reminiscent of Wilson's earlier work such as The Rimers of Eldritch, where individual characters portrayed the views of the whole town. Therefore, Timmy's role in the play becomes more important as it becomes more personalized, and the difference between the characters in A Tale Told and Talley & Son marks a noticeable change in the scripts. In the beginning of A Tale Told, Timmy is introduced in this fashion:

The time is around sunset, July 4th, 1944.
The living room is empty.
(Off. Calling loudly)
Mr. Eldon? Anybody home? Mrs. Talley? Yo-hoo. Anybody to home?
(Off, upstairs, stage whisper; overlapping)
Mrs. Platt. Hush up. Oh, my goodness.
Mr. Eldon? Anybody to home here? Miss Talley.
Oh, good lord, would somebody shut that woman up.
(As NETTA appears from the back hall)
Mother, I just got Junnie to sleep. She's gonna wake her right up.
(TIMMY walks from somewhere into the middle of the room. He is wearing clean fatigues. He looks about the room, wandering from one side to the other)

[38, 1]

Talley & Son begins quite differently. Instead of benignly passing through the beginning of the play, Timmy draws the attention of the audience right away by making a very strong opening statement. He is not portrayed as some ethereal vision, but is shown in full stage light. It is not until the end of his opening speech that the audience is made aware of the fact that he might be a ghost.

The time is sunset, July 4, 1944.
TIMMY TALLEY stands near the fireplace. He speaks to the audience.
America won the Second World War today. It'll be August next year before anybody knows it, but we took Saipan, and from Saipan we'll take its little cousin Tinian, and from Tinian a B-29 can finally take off for Japan and get back again, and then the war's over. I'm a little early here. This is the Fourth of July; I'm due here on the sixth, for Granddad's funeral. I got my pass in my pocket. And while I'm here we're gonna have this big powwow about the family business. See, Harley Campbell and Dad own this garment factory, Talley & Son. Now some big company's wantin' to buy us out. Dad wrote me I'd better get my butt back here quick before Harley sold off everything but my stamp collection. (ELDON comes in) Hey, Dad, that was one hell of a fire-and-brimstone letter. Hey could you look at me for a change? What you don't know—I got a letter from you and one from Harley and one from Mom. Dad? (ELDON goes into the office. TIMMY looks back to the audience) Last thing I knew I was bumping along on a stretcher, some guy's hand over my eyes. I was yelling, “I gotta see Dad, man, get me up. Everything going all right, I'm home for the sixth.” I think everything didn't go all right.
(SALLY runs down the stairs)
Sally. Sally. I thought you locked yourself in your room.
Oh, I am so mad, I really am.
That's my sister.
Sally, Buddy and Olive don't have the sense. …
Oh, I am very angry with both of them, and Mother, too.
Mr. Friedman was as polite and gentlemanly as anyone could ask.
Most of all I am angry with Matt Friedman.
It wasn't Matt …
How dare he get himself into a fight with my brother.
Matt wasn't fighting; he was going to sit on the porch and wait for you. Buddy chased him off with a shotgun.
Oh, Lord.
I hit Buddy with a broom, and I'm glad.
Why did Matt come down here in the first place? He knows how we feel about him. Oh!
He said he wanted to talk to your father.
Aunt Lottie, I wish you would get all that romantic twaddle out of your mind.
Well …
If there was a place to move to, I'd move there tonight.
I know, darling.
(Coming down the stairs): Sally, I just got June to sleep. You're going to wake her right up.
Well, I wouldn't want to do that.
Where are you going, Sally?
Out. Out. I'm going out.
Sally, stay here and talk to me.
I am very angry with this entire household. (She slams out the door)
(At the door) Sally!
(To audience) I think my sister's very angry with the entire household.
(Calling) Sally, come back up here.
Aunt Lottie, you might have some consideration. You're going to wake June right up.
I'm not speaking to you, Olive. (She storms off outside, leaving TIMMY alone in the parlor)
Boy, this family. This house. This room. This is where we always liked to come and play 'cause we weren't allowed to. We'd lay around on the rug playing Monopoly, but Sally'd always lost interest and I'd just lose—Buddy'd beat up on Sally and Sally's old boyfriend Harley'd beat up on me 'cause I was the youngest. About the only thing we did together was save up our dimes and sneak down to the Lyric Theater to see a picture show, 'cause we weren't allowed to do that either. If the family ever went to the movies, they could watch us win the war next week on the Movietone Newsreel. They could see me die.
(Off, calling loudly) Mr. Eldon? Anybody at home? Mrs. Talley?
(Upstairs, whispering; overlapping): Viola, hush up. Oh, my goodness.
(Continuing): Mr. Eldon?
Is anybody going to get the door?
Anybody to home here? Miss Charlotte?
(Continuing) Oh, good Lord, would somebody shut that woman up. (NETTA appears from the back hall) Mother, I just got June to sleep. She's gonna wake her right up.
That's Mom.
Why didn't you come around to the back, Viola?

[35, 7-9]

Wilson has used the same technique in the rewriting of this play that he used in Fifth of July. Whereas in A Tale Told a relatively minor character begins the play much as Gwen and John did in the 1978 script of 5th of July,Talley & Son begins with Timmy, Sally, Lottie, and Eldon; the four most important characters in the story. Timmy succinctly explains the plot to come, and the relationship between Sally and her family is shown immediately; her relationship with her family and Matt Friedman is made clear from the beginning and is seen from her point of view. This is a marked contrast to A Tale Told, and once again proves that Mason's directorial desire to make things clear to the audience without cluttering the play guided Wilson in making these changes, even if it meant making some textual sacrifices.

He's actually very good about—better than most any playwright that I've worked with—about giving up on some beautiful writing sometimes. This play particularly, the one that we're doing now, Talley & Son, when we did it in 1981 in New York, had some of the most beautiful writing that Lanford's ever done. There were soliloquies that the character Timmy had that had to be cut right out because as beautifully as they're written, they're not …
What I was really dealing with was the power and role of a melodrama, and I didn't understand, 'cause I was deliberately trying to write a melodrama. I didn't understand the power that those damn stories have, and I would stop it right in the middle of a …
Brilliant speech.
… five minute brilliant speech, and all you wanted to do was shoot this guy and get him off the stage because we're trying to follow a story here. And you … where's the hook? You just wanted to hook the character. Didn't matter if it was well-written or not, you know. Fuck that, it was like, we're talkin' about …
A story.
… a story here. And suddenly he's telling me about how it feels to be blown up. … Get him off the stage.
There was that one scene where he integrated that story about, “Wow, I was walking along …”
More integrated into the play now.
Yeah, but he's sitting on the couch, as opposed to being out on … in the green light or whatever.
Yes. I don't think that stops the play as much now anymore but it. … That is a tiny little part from the speech that was in there earlier, and it's readapted.
Also there's a …
I hope he doesn't stop the play. Did you feel it stopped the play?
Because before people were saying, “I wanted to kill that guy,” and “What's he doing in the play?” What he's doing in the play was saying some of the best writing I've ever written in my life but it had no business there. And they were right. By the end of the run, Marshall and I both wanted to kill … we had thought it as so wonderful when we were working on it, and by the end of the run, when that power, that melodrama was really working, but we both wanted to just get the hook on that guy and get him out of there. We needed his perspective, so it was the idea of reworking so that his perspective can … I mean, we finally made each other understand what we wanted on that.


The critical reaction to Talley & Son was as mixed as the reviews for A Tale Told, with most of the same New York critics sounding the same themes as they did four years earlier. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times:

Lanford Wilson, one of the most generous-spirited of American playwrights, has devoted more than four years to creating a play about mean-spirited rich people. It may well be that the author of such compassionate works as Balm in Gilead and The Hot l Baltimore is just too nice a fellow for the task. Mr. Wilson's revised and improved drama of familial greed and backstabbing, known as A Tale Told in its 1981 premiere but now titled Talley & Son, is for much of its length, amusing entertainment—especially as performed by a crack Circle Repertory Company cast. But if Mr. Wilson has been, on other occasions, a persuasive heir to Tennessee Williams, in this play he remains an unconvincing stand-in for Lillian Hellman. …

Still, for all the flaws that remain from A Tale Told the improvements in Talley & Son are real. What was a dull, superficial play is now a superficial play that clicks smartly along until mid-Act II. In addition to tightening, focusing, and clarifying (one need no longer refer constantly to the family tree in the program), Mr. Wilson has added a goodly share of funny lines. …

Mr. Wilson's longtime collaborator, the director Marshall W. Mason, has also helped by lightening the production's tone. The Talley household buzzes, as one line claims, “like a swarm of gnats”—so much so that the sadder interludes, notably a primal wartime tableau delicately choreographed for the Act I curtain, have more impact now.

Even so, as far as Talley & Son is concerned, the honorable time may have come for Mr. Wilson to give up the ghost.


Douglas Watt in the Daily News saw no improvement: “What's new? Well, the ghost of the youngest Talley boy, blown apart on Saipan, a figure so bothersome in A Tale Told, has been built up here to handle even more narration than before, but oddly enough becomes more attractive in Robert MacNaughton's [sic] direct and appealing performance.” He concludes, “But I think we've had the Talley's up to here” (45). Howard Kissel in Women's Wear Daily was kinder:

The major change Wilson seems to have made is to lighten the character of a young son who has died in the Pacific … who speaks directly to the audience. This character seems more carefully woven into the play than he did four years ago. This modification only strengthened my impression that Talley and Son is an extraordinarily rich play, an important addition to Talley's Folley [sic] and 5th of July.


Clive Barnes in the Post noted Mason's contribution to the play: “Mason has directed as impeccably as ever—he stages Wilson as if there was no barrier of intent between himself and the playwright. The performances are as natural as life, and neat in their avoidance of Norman Rockwell” (47). Mel Gussow, perhaps more familiar with the inner workings of the Circle Rep, cited Wilson's commitment to characters:

It is Wilson's dramatic artistry that he is able to draw us into the realm of the Talleys, encouraging us to understand the grasping fathers and sons as well as those few who can embrace a life of individuality and responsibility. One reason for looking forward to the promised play about Whistler Talley is that as a character he should bring out the best in the author. In his work, Wilson has an irrepressible congeniality and a longing for sustained relationships. While Lillian Hellman seemed to warm to the task of unmasking the malicious Hubbards, Wilson is more comfortable—and more revealing—with such likable characters as Charlotte, Sally, Matt Friedman and Ken Talley Jr. For this reason, among others, Talley's Folly and Fifth of July are better realized plays than Talley & Son.


The staging of Talley & Son represented a renewal in the collaboration. It was the first work Mason and Wilson did together after Mason's two-year sabbatical, and it marked the return of the repertory concept, running concurrently with Paul Osborn's Tomorrow's Monday. The lukewarm reception of the work of the company and financial difficulties during the two years may have illustrated that Mason's guiding hand was needed at the helm more than ever. But it may have been more of just the natural process of production and collaboration that caused the lapse. Jeremy Gerard, in an article on Mason's return, wrote:

“I hope, as I return to my responsibilities as artistic director,” Mr. Mason wrote in a memo to the company upon his return, “to keep matters of conscience close to our concerns, and to integrate those concerns into our work process.”

“Critics were saying, ‘What's happened to Circle Rep?’” he told a visitor. “It's as though we somehow failed an obligation. It doesn't follow that because the process is good, that everything is going to be successful. We have no obligation except to do the best plays we can come up with.”


Wilson was already working on Burn This when Talley & Son was running in October 1985. Whether or not he will follow through on his promise to write more about the Talley clan remains to be seen, but if he does not, he may have left a clue at the end of Fifth of July about how he envisioned the future of the Talley clan:

I don't care. The important thing is to find your vocation and work like hell at it. I don't think heredity has anything to do with anything.
Certainly not.
You do realize, though, the terrible burden.
How's that?
I am the last of the Talleys. And the whole family has just come to nothing at all so far. Fortunately, it's on my shoulders. … I won't fail us.

[21, 75]

Anne M. Dean (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18647

SOURCE: Dean, Anne M. “Balm in Gilead” and “Burn This.” In Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson, pp. 61-79, 94-122. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Dean asserts that Balm in Gilead displays Wilson's talent for poetic dialogue and that Burn This is one of his most important works.]

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear—

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Balm in Gilead is the earliest and perhaps most disconcerting of Wilson's urban plays. Like his other works set in a city, this drama is both ambitious and brave, seeking to cover a wide range of issues by means of unconventional, even alienating, effects. It is at once a fairly realistic chronicle of life as lived by a particular section of the New York underclass at a specific period in history and a dynamic and intensely theatrical celebration of the poetry of the streets. It deals not only with the many betrayals, disappointments, and hardships that characterize the life of its protagonists, but also with their hopes, dreams, and small victories.

The play is a coruscating, yet strangely moving evocation of a socially disadvantaged corner of New York. To become involved in its dissipated milieu is to share its fears and elations to an uncomfortable degree. Although it is set in the 1960s, with clear indications of a very “sixties” kind of mentality in its writing, it is also timeless.

Despite Wilson's concentration on the seamier elements of life, Balm in Gilead is far from being a depressing or unsavory work; there is much to admire, even in its bleakest moments. For example, his motley cast of characters each have the ring of absolute truth about them, and their experiences are dramatized with much knowing humor and understanding. Equally, their sometimes twisted morality is, nonetheless, rooted in a street culture that has established its own moral structure, where certain codes of conduct are permitted and others are not. Even here, certain rules may not be breached, and displays of dysfunctional (as defined by this society) behavior are vehemently discouraged. When the finely wrought structure is tested, discord and panic take over but, soon enough, the group reforms and the status quo is reestablished. This is nowhere more evident than in Joe's murder, which, while horrifying to all who witness it, is quickly “forgotten”—or repressed—and life continues as before.

Balm in Gilead is also extremely inventive, both in its use of language and its visual imagery. Much contrivance is at work here to ensure that word and image combine at exactly the correct moment to achieve their dramatic aim, with innovative use of lighting, repetitions both of whole scenes and snatches of dialogue, and surreal interventions by singers and children in Halloween masks all conspiring to create powerful tableaux. This is, after all, a glimpse into a world usually unseen by the majority, and Wilson takes every opportunity to mold it into a fantastic concoction of positive and negative imagery, dark and light, sound and silence, color and monochrome.

Here, for the first time, Wilson dramatizes the kindly prostitutes, losers, and frustrated dreamers who populate his other urban plays, and he indicates the direction he would take as a dramatist. In his introduction to the play, he describes those who people the work as “the riffraff, the bums, the petty thieves, the scum, the lost, the desperate, the dispossessed, the cool.”1 This may sound harsh and condemnatory, but the tone of the play is quite the opposite. At no point does he adopt a moral or censorious stance; on the contrary, his characters are delineated without apology and with considerable humor and affection.

As John Beaufort observes, “however down and out and disreputable the social castoffs of Balm in Gilead may be, the playwright still regards them as human beings.”2 Similarly, Gene Barnett notes that “the playwright's presentation of the characters' courage and persistence in confronting low life suggests that even such people as these have his respect.”3 Robert Brustein describes the play as basically documentary, objectively recording what Wilson observed around him; for Brustein, Balm in Gilead is

a closely observed sociological study of hookers, hustlers, pimps, pushers, and dopers of every sexual persuasion converging on each other in an all-night coffee shop on Halloween—Gorki's Lower Depths transferred to Upper Broadway.4

Described by John Beaufort as resembling “a verbal folk opera with set pieces for arias recited by several of its … characters,”5 the action of the play takes place during the week or so prior to Halloween and spans several days. Of the thirty-two characters (including four “negro entertainers” and four children) moving in and out of the all-night café in which the work is set, the audience's attention is gradually focused on two: Joe, a dope pusher a cut above the rest of the habitués of the café in social class, and Darlene, a naive and rather stupid prostitute who has come to New York from Chicago with the intention of improving her career prospects, to become as Wilson observes, “a serious hooker.”6

The dynamic, relentless pace suggests the kind of culture shock a young writer from Missouri must have felt when he first came to the Upper West Side of New York, finding it to be a living—albeit consumptive—museum of drugs, graffiti, and street people who seemed to exist according to their own rules. Far from feeling faint-hearted at the sights and sounds that engulfed him, Wilson seized the opportunity to become part of this counterculture.

During this period, Wilson lived in a run-down hotel named the Hebro. With two friends, he rented one large room and spent his evenings in Pan's Restaurant. Here, stunned by the diversity of life he witnessed, he eavesdropped on as many conversations as he could, becoming entranced by the street life he observed. He remembers being “so excited by the sound of what was around [him]. Those incredibly vibrant though maybe burned out lives banging against each other.”7 He elaborates:

The night life was just so amazing to me. I made sound patterns out of what I heard and wrote down everything I heard. Every night I would just write down more and more, and anything else I heard on the street. Later, I would incorporate it all into my writing.8

Thus, from a back seat in a café just like the one portrayed in the play, Wilson set about watching and noting the speech and behavior of his potential cast of characters. Virtually every character in Balm in Gilead was inspired by someone Wilson knew during this period, and he clearly relished incorporating salient aspects of their experiences and personalities into his play, emphasizing certain areas and diminishing others.

The character of Darlene, for example, was developed from an amalgam of people he and his friends knew during their early days in New York; like them, she comes to New York from Chicago. The long description of her lining up with her “fiancé” and friends in Chicago's City Hall for a wedding licence is also based upon a real event: Wilson's friend Michael Warren Powell was at that time getting married, and underwent the same endless waiting among a similar group to those portrayed in the play (act 2, pp. 54-56).

Dopey was based on an acquaintance named Bobby, who was particularly interesting to the playwright since he “wasn't a drug addict yet, but he had ambitions to be an addict!”9 Bobby actually read Balm in Gilead, the only one of the “cast” to do so. Wilson remembers his critique with glee: “He said, ‘that's about right’. I was delighted.”10 Wilson stresses, however, that Dopey's speeches are not verbatim representations of Bobby's, observing that “if Bobby had said those things, I believe that's how he would have said them.”11 Similarly, Michael Warren Powell, the first actor to play the character, notes that, “while Lanford put the words in Dopey's mouth, they were not foreign.”12

Powell knew Bobby—and many of the other characters in the play—very well indeed. With Wilson, he lived among them, becoming familiar with their physical demeanor and speech rhythms. Taking on the part of Dopey therefore evolved almost by osmosis, with director Marshall Mason encouraging his cast to closely identify with their roles. Powell recalls:

Marshall was at the time very into Stanislavski and so we virtually lived the roles for the whole rehearsal period. We used to hang out in a place very similar to the one Lanford had written about [the original café, Pan's, was no longer in existence] whose clièntele was almost identical. Rehearsals were invariably set for midnight and so the lateness of the hour added its own dimension.13

While Dopey's speeches are fictionalized versions of their original's discourse, the monologue spoken by Fick at the end of act 1 was reproduced virtually verbatim. Fick is based upon a “tiny, stringy little guy”14 Wilson encountered early one morning:

Fick's character evolved out of an experience that occurred during a driving thunderstorm at 3 o'clock in the morning. I came out of the 72nd Street subway stop, and this guy latched onto me and ran backwards beside me all the way to the hotel door. I told him, “I'm really very sorry, I just don't have a nickel for you.” It wasn't what he had asked for at all. He just wanted to talk. You know, “If I had a buddy, if I just had somebody I could pass down the street with.” Just company.15

In the play, Fick's need to pass the time with someone is explained still further. He states: “See I'm on H [heroin], I mean, I'm flying and I gotta talk man” (act 1, p. 45). After the above episode, Wilson went straight back to his hotel room and wrote down everything the man had said to him: “I had never heard anything like it,” he recalls, “as a result, almost the entire part of Fick was written in one sitting. This guy was one of those people who spoke in poetry, so foreign; such a strange style and with a wonderful mix of dialects.”16 Elsewhere, he notes that the whole episode was “an exercise in getting down exactly what he said, exactly the way he said it.”17

At the time he wrote Balm in Gilead, Wilson recalls that he had an almost perfect ear; he could reproduce conversations—and written matter—almost verbatim as much as two years later. Wilson confirms that “a lot of the play is dictation … I was just trying to take things I'd heard and adapt them to a flow.”18 Until then, he had not realized that he had a natural talent for accurately reproducing dialogue with all of its verbal idiosyncrasies and repetitions:

I didn't realize it until I started writing plays. … Not only do I hear the way people talk—and the specific rhythms of their speech—but I have a talent for reproducing that in an organized and exciting way. That is a talent—everything else is work.19

Balm in Gilead was originally conceived by Wilson as a novel, and some time elapsed before he revised his manuscript into a play format. Never believing for a moment that it could ever be produced (in the first draft, a total of fifty-five characters were included; he would later amalgamate some of them and eliminate others), Wilson felt completely unrestricted and thoroughly immersed himself in experimentation. The scope and breadth of the work allowed Wilson to experiment on a scale he had never previously imagined, and a number of the theatrical devices that would later become his trademarks were incorporated: the mesmerizing, confusing, overlapping dialogue with several characters conversing simultaneously; direct audience address; innovative use of staging techniques and lighting, together with a musicality bordering on the operatic. He recalls:

I never believed it could be produced so it didn't matter what I did. I included everything in sight … and, of course we were going to see many wonderfully experimental works, and much of the play is clearly taken from other things. Much of it isn't; much of it is totally original, but I did absorb a lot of other influences.20

Joan Littlewood's Chicago production of The Hostage was a direct influence, and there are clear indications of the impact on Wilson of such works as Maxim Gorki's The Lower Depths and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. The play's circularity of form owes much to a work by Gertrude Stein, In Circles, which Wilson saw at the Judson Poets Theatre. Equally, Wilson states his piece was influenced by an experimental dance group who were working in the same theatre at the time. He recalls how emotionally affected he was by the dance:

It was set in the middle of a big, open stage and, in the middle, the cast moved the piano across the stage while the pianist was still playing. Later, very gradually, they slid the piano back over to where it originally was. … moving that piano was just one of the most moving moments I had ever seen. I didn't know what it meant, but it was terrific! So the moving of the set around in a circle that occurs in Balm in Gilead was directly influenced by that.21

The moving of the set has been attempted only once, and that was in the first production of the piece; the subsequent revivals directed by John Malkovich have not repeated the process. Wilson regrets this, although he acknowledges that the Malkovich productions were extremely effective. Ideally, however, he believes that the work benefits from this visual counterpoint to its circularity:

Virtually the whole set turns inside out. … I couldn't do it without it meaning something; the whole play is written in little circles, all contributing to and commenting upon the overall structure. … Even the monologues spin back on themselves, turning in circles.22

Wilson describes the physical action of the play thus:

Everything seems to move in a circle. Within the general large pattern the people who spend their nights at the café have separate goals and separate characters but together they constitute a whole, revolving around some common center.23

An excellent example of Wilson's use of the circular motif occurs immediately prior to Joe's murder. John cries to the children who have recently appeared onstage in Halloween masks: “Go on, scram. Get out of here. Scram out of here. Go on!” (act 2, p. 68) The lights dim, and the Stranger stabs Joe “underhanded in the heart”24 as the children run out, not understanding, “screaming and yelling joyously.”25 To add to the nightmarish and surreal aura onstage, they immediately return after circling the café set, entering from the back and running through again. Exactly the same scene is repeated, though this time the children flee screaming in terror. The chilling atmosphere of unreality is compounded by Wilson's instruction that, following the murder, “There is a time lapse. No one mentions the stabbing.”26 Life continues as though nothing has happened.

In his production notes, Wilson states that much of the play “consists of simultaneous conversations in various groups with dialogue either overlapping or interlocking. These sections should flow as a whole, without specific focus; they rise and subside and scenes develop from them.”27 Later, he indicates that “each group, and there are several of them, must maintain a kind of life of its own. … Improvised, unheard conversations may be used. … Their lines should come from scenes developed within the situation.”28

The characters themselves sometimes become a living part of the café set, as when they “stand in a line across stage, back to the audience, forming a ‘wall.’ There is a space about four feet wide at the center of the wall, forming a doorway. Joe and Darlene walk down the wall slowly.”29 Similarly, a mesmeric visual counterpoint to any changes onstage occurs every time a new character arrives. Wilson describes how

everyone in the café (with the exception of Babe and Fick) looks up the moment someone enters … a kind of reflex “once-over” to evaluate any new opportunity or threat.30

Balm in Gilead is clearly the work of a young and headstrong dramatist; any flaws it may have arise out of an urgent need to experiment with the technical possibilities of theatre. Marshall Mason has commented both on the tremendous vitality that imbues the text and on the clear indication that Wilson was a playwright with great natural potential. Wilson was, however, still learning at this stage and was keen to expand his skills. Mason observes that

[Wilson's] early writing had great originality and energy, but he wanted to grow as a playwright, particularly in terms of learning structure. … [His work is] structured by its inner drive, which is almost like music.31

Further, Mason notes that Wilson incorporates such poetry, combined with the most naturalistic sounds, to achieve his aim:

There is a great energy in the play; it's teeming with naturalistic life, but at the same time [Wilson] was also experimenting with the here and now of the theatre in a very vivid present-tense kind of way. He much admires the work of Brendan Behan, and Balm in Gilead has a similarly vivid use of language.32

Wilson's extraordinarily inventive manipulation of language, particularly “street” and debased language, is here already resoundingly in evidence. His abilities as a poet are also developing, although there are occasions when the music of language is rendered in a somewhat obvious and strained fashion, and can sound a little false and self-conscious. One example occurs when several people order coffee at the same time:

Just the coffee's okay. Black. Black.

(act 1, p. 14)

Although this bears rather obvious hallmarks of “artistic” contrivance and poeticizing, these were very early days in Wilson's writing career. What is remarkable is that the vast majority of the poetry in the play is seamless, sophisticated, and complex enough to bear close scrutiny and analysis.

Wilson's use of alliteration and assonance frequently recalls works such as Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, where disparate snippets of dialogue eventually cohere into a mosaic of meaning. In Balm in Gilead, the sounds produced by various characters create an aural miasma of interlocking and overlapping noises. This is very strong in the opening moments of the play, when the bustle and raucousness of street life are forcefully implied:

[overlapping] What are you, some kind of housewife, Judy?
[to DAVID] You're the housewife, aren't you, sweetheart?
You're the fishwife, Judy. Fishwife, Fish. Pheew!

(act 1, p. 7)

This and other conversations are repeated in the second act (act 2, p. 64), where the echoing of the words provides a hypnotic counterpoint to the vaguely drug-induced euphoria evident onstage. These repetitions are a source of confusion even to some of the characters; after listening to a series of conversations identical to those in the first act and then being informed that Joe is about to be murdered, the drug-addled Fick is completely nonplussed. He asks “We ain't seen this, have we?” (act 2, p. 67).

Repetitions and circularity of theme also mark the hard, consonantal sounds that reverberate and twang throughout the work and establish an impression both of speed and of harsh, soulless interactions. At one point, Ann states, “He don't truck with that junk. He'd better not; I'd crack him over the head” (act 1, p. 11); and at another, Tim says, “At least I'm drunk on drunk, not on junk like everyone” (act 1, p. 17). The slang of the streets has permeated the diction of Wilson's characters as surely as the air they breathe; its jazzlike rhythms infect almost every word they speak. For example, Fick describes how he has been beaten up: “I tell you they had me pinned, man. Down in this hall-thing. Four or five big black cats, they must have been huge” (act 1, p. 43); and Judy indicates her jealousy over Rust's relationship with Terry: “You sawed-of [sic] little bitch, you moving in? You moving into our pad. … Get your hot little ass out of here, now.” (act 1, p. 31).

The repeated use of slang unites them, no matter how aggressive or violent the content of their speech; their knowledge and use of such argot forms a bond that allows them to function, to operate, apart from mainstream society. Delighting in the use of the expletives that pepper their conversation, they exclude the faint-hearted, who would find it impossible to cope with such a hostile and challenging atmosphere; these are mean, tough streets, and the only way to survive is to adopt a hard veneer, both verbal and physical.

The jargon used by drug addicts and other hustlers is also closely observed; the reluctant drug-pusher, Joe, expresses his distaste for the cattle syringe the Stranger takes from his pocket: “You don't use something like that. That's too fancy. You use a works. An eye dropper, a piece of dollar. A needle.” (act 2, p. 67). At the foot of the page on which this text appears, Wilson explains that “a junkie seldom uses a syringe. He uses an eye-dropper, attached to a surgical needle with a thin piece of paper rolled around the needle, serving as a gasket. For paper they often use a thin strip torn from the edge of a dollar bill.”

Elsewhere, the character's use of nonsense language also takes on a jargonized tone; although one may be little wiser when confronted cold with the actual words, in the context of performance the mystery unravels itself. A good example occurs during a brief contretemps between the drunken Tim and Judy (a lesbian); Judy tries to help get Tim home, but he misconstrues her concern and calls her “a whatsit,” turning to the audience as if to explain: “She's a whatsit, without a gizmo” (act 1, p. 17).

Wilson's use of language, dazzling throughout the work, is perhaps at its most impressive in a number of superbly timed and controlled monologues that appear at fairly regular intervals. The playwright's talent for such writing is at its best in this play. Of particular note are those spoken by Dopey, by Fick, and, especially, by Darlene. Her long and discursive monologue was originally intended by Wilson to be a short story but, he recalls, “about half-way through the writing of it, I decided it was going to be in the play.”33 At first, Wilson intended it to comprise the entire second act; originally written to last forty-five minutes, it now runs for about twenty-six minutes.

John Malkovich has hailed this speech as containing “arguably some of the best writing of the last 40 to 50 years.”34 For him, Darlene forms the centerpiece of the play, which he sees as being essentially about “a girl who comes to the big city. A very dumb, dumb girl who is really pretty pathetic and sad.”35

Without once descending into parody or adopting a patronizing tone, Wilson expertly guides and delineates Darlene's rambling, frequently incoherent, thoughts. He describes her character as “not at all bright. … she is supposed to be stupid, and not the sweet, girl-next-door, common-sense-saves-the-day type of ingenue.”36 Wilson's attitude toward Darlene might seem to be rather harsh; although he clearly feels affection for her, he nonetheless uncompromisingly conveys her innate stupidity and vulnerability, not least by the absurdity of her explanation to Ann that an albino is “a kind of horse” (act 2, p. 53), as she tries to describe a former lover.

Darlene tells a story that is absolutely believable without any prettifying of its basic sadness or any attempt to make it more interesting. She is without the sophistication that might prompt her to at least partially rewrite her (not very thrilling) history for the benefit of the listener. Like the truly ingenuous, she believes her story to be fascinating and rambles on endlessly. It is, on the surface at least, tedious, repetitive, pathetic, and apparently pointless.

Darlene buttonholes Ann and offers vague recollections inarticulately—and very probably inaccurately—delivered. In verbalizing her memories, she reveals herself with total and poignant candour, mercilessly signalling her flaws and weaknesses and unselfconsciously conveying her credulity and stupidity.

Wilson thus portrays Darlene as a disappointed fantastist who clings to muddled dreams of love and old romances. So vague is her recollection of the good times that, when she tries to reclaim a memory of a comforting experience from the past, she inadvertently relays a tale of ineffable sadness. Unable to recall the name of the park near her Chicago apartment or the name of the hotel from which her favorite “collected” towel came, she attempts to describe for Ann something of her “love affair” with Cotton:

… Old Cotton had, I'll swear, the funniest temperament I ever saw. If he got mad … he wouldn't argue or anything like that, he'd just walk around like nothing was wrong only never say one word. … Course I make it sound worse than it was, cause he didn't act like that very often. Fortunately. But you never knew what was going to provoke him, I swear. … And when we decided to get married all our friends were so excited—of course, they'd been expecting it probably. But we were so crazy you'd never know what we were going to do. I know he used to set the TV so it pointed into the mirror, because there wasn't a plug-in by the bed and we'd lay there in bed and look at the mirror that had the TV reflected in it. Only everything was backwards. Writing was backwards. … Only, you know, even backwards, it was a better picture, it was clearer than if you was just looking straight at it.

(act 2, pp. 52-53)

Darlene's monologue has all the hallmarks of real speech, full of ellipses, pauses, and non sequiturs. Wilson draws on her inarticulateness to delineate character at the same time as he seamlessly suggests her nostalgic longing for the past and her need for such reminiscence. It is what sustains her. In this respect, she is like all the other lonely and emotionally hungry people in the café—indeed, in Wilson's urban plays; she needs to talk, to have someone listen to her, and she wants to hold on to a rapidly disintegrating past that daily seems to move further away. To speak the words aloud somehow helps to make them true.

The anecdote is given added authenticity by Darlene's frequent use of interjections such as “I'll swear,” “of course,” and “you know.” And, despite her verbal stumblings, she obviously enjoys telling her story; her eagerness to relive what must have been, ironically, the happiest period of her life is forcefully conveyed.

Wilson's overt use of poetic imagery and heightened language is noticeable here. Poetry and practicality combine to achieve the desired effect: because of the lack of a plug by the bed, Cotton turned the television so that its image was reflected in the mirror. What is ostensibly a very mundane and ordinary action is here given immense depth. Everything that Darlene and Cotton watched on television was seen backwards; the resulting imperfect image was, nonetheless, considered by Darlene to be “a better picture … clearer than if you was just looking straight at it.” This clearly has implications far beyond the prosaic: Darlene prefers to regard life at an oblique angle, hoping that the view she is granted will be an improvement on a more cruel and harsh reality.

Darlene's fundamental dimness is skillfully woven into the fabric of her speech; by qualifying many of her apparently factual statements, she deflates or undermines her most heartfelt sentiments. Realizing that her description of Cotton's tendency to mope about in silence for days on end may make him sound unattractive or undesirable to her audience, she suddenly interjects that she is exaggerating, making his behavior “sound worse than it was, cause he didn't act like that very often. Fortunately.” Similarly, when she and Cotton had finally decided to marry, she gleefully exclaims that their friends were “so excited” for them, but her joy is immediately diminished as she adds “of course, they'd been expecting it probably.”

By such subtle linguistic means, Wilson illuminates Darlene's complexity, while simultaneously demonstrating, once again, his profoundly humane attitude toward those he dramatizes. It is all too easy to reject such a character out of hand and to become impatient with her dizziness and self-delusion, but, in Wilson's hands, Darlene's very inarticulateness speaks volumes about her plight and reminds us that no one's experiences are worthless or simplistic.

Dopey is described by Wilson as “a heroin addict as well as a sometimes-not-too-good hustler.”37 With little to recommend him for it, this character has nonetheless adopted the role of commentator on the action for the benefit of the audience. He is one of those characters who can frequently be found on park benches, who will engage one in interminable expositions of his opinions on the world and its problems; an ersatz philosopher, he airs his views or attempts to clarify—often where no clarification is required—any issue that comes to mind.

Throughout act 1, Dopey's ramblings serve as a verbal backdrop to onstage events. In the first section of his long speech, he laboriously explains what he sees as the workings of the pimp-and-prostitute relationship; later, he stresses his concern over the resilience of cockroaches. In his mind, the two subjects would seem to be inextricably linked. Wilson indicates that the following part of Dopey's monologue should be spoken as though he were “a bit irritated”:38

… it's a crawling bughouse up there. … all the roaches playing like games on the floor. … A roach's attitude just gripes the hell out of me. But what burns me, I've been reading up, not recently. … they [were] around about two million years before man, you know, before we came along: Anthropologists or whatever, geologists over in Egypt or somewhere, looking for the first city, they dug down through a city, and straight on down through another, you know, they're piled up like a sandwich or in layers like a seven-layer cake. … But not only that! They've made tests, and they found out that a roach can stand—if there was going to be a big atom explosion, they can stand something like fourteen times as much radio-whatever-it-is, you-know-activity as we can. So after every man, woman, and child is wiped out and gone, like you imagine, those same goddamn cockroaches will be still crawling around happy as you please over the ruins of everything. Now the picture of that really gripes my ass.

(act 1, pp. 26-27)

Dopey adopts a confiding tone and prattles on as though he were an authority on the life expectancy of cockroaches, although he is almost certainly merely resurrecting half-forgotten facts from the hinterland of his atrophied brain. In a misguided attempt to back up his statements with a little learning and objective proof, he states that he has been “reading up, not recently” on the evolution of the insects. Just how seriously we are meant to take this assertion is unclear.

Dopey's use of language nicely complements the disarray of his ideas: he interrupts his sentences with endless commas and repetitions of “you know” and “like,” his muddle-headedness even extends to forgetting the correct word for radioactivity and then punctuating his groping with “whatever-it-is” and, again, “you know”.

The longevity and resilience of cockroaches clearly annoys Dopey; their hardiness is an affront to someone whose daily existence is fraught with precarious health problems and the fiscal dangers inherent in drug addiction. About as far down the social scale as it is possible to drop, Dopey nonetheless steadfastly classes himself with the rest of humanity and misses the irony implicit in his opinions. Disgusted with and dismissive of what he believes to be a particularly revolting form of insect life, he nonetheless personally enacts a lifestyle not entirely dissimilar to such creatures by foraging, scavenging, and living in whichever corner he can find.

That the cockroach can, apparently, withstand almost any form of attack, even nuclear, is very telling: in one form or another, people like Dopey manage to survive despite incredible odds. They exist in the most abject poverty, withstand disease and infection, and even manage to escape those who would destroy or restrict them. Metaphorical deinfestation may periodically occur, but some members of the attacked always survive.

Unknowingly lending weight to the connection between certain sections of humanity and cockroaches, Dopey anthropomorphizes the insects, calling their “attitude” unacceptable. To illustrate his skewed point of view, he attributes human characteristics to their antics wherever possible: “playing like games on the floor”; “crawling around happy as you please.”

Fick is another drug addict who shares something of Dopey's predilection for constant chatter. He will, according to Wilson, “talk to anything that moves,”39 and so the long monologue toward the end of act 1 is merely an extension of an interminable and garbled diatribe, full of woeful self-pity, that has continued for some time. Fick variously complains of the cold, of becoming ill (he explains that he is “weak as a kitten” (act 1, p. 44) due to his heroin addiction that began when he was only thirteen), of not having anyone to talk to, and, particularly, of needing protection. The speech reaches its climax when he describes how “four or five big black cats. … big, strong fellows” have beaten him up:

… And they pushed me into this alley, not an alley, but this hallway and back down the end of that to this dark place at the end of the hallway and they start punching at me, and I just fell into this ball on the floor so they couldn't hurt me or nothing. But if I came down there with a couple of fighters, a couple of guys, like my friends, it wouldn't have to be you or anything, but just a couple or three guys, big guys, like walking down the street, you know. … just a few guys and they'd leave me be, maybe, because they'd think I had these buddies that looked after me, you know …

(act 1, p. 45)

The long first sentence, interrupted by only three commas, forcefully suggests a succession of muddled thoughts and half-forgotten memories; as these swim and curve through Fick's mind, Wilson implies the speech rhythms of one whose mental state owes much to a chemically induced euphoria. To Fick, all dark places seem the same; in his desperation to remember the “facts” of the attack on him, he confuses the location, first stating that it took place in an alley and then immediately retracting this in favor of a hallway.

While there is much bleak humor in Wilson's treatment of the plight of Fick, whose paranoid repetitions and panicky tone accurately portray the kind of chaotic discourse associated with addicts and alcoholics, there is also pathos and compassion.

Fick casts around for an inordinate amount of time in an effort to harness attention and assistance from someone, anyone; he desperately tries to advertise his predicament without actually addressing any particular individual. For him, the possibility of rejection is too strong; it is easier to talk generally and without specific focus. Fick knows that his companions' perception of him is negative in the extreme; on their list of those deserving of assistance and friendship, he ranks very low.

It is highly unlikely that any of Fick's companions in the café will help him; they have problems enough of their own. Even if they do not consider themselves to be leading dysfunctional lives—which is possible for some of the more vague inhabitants—they are almost certainly too lazy or apathetic to care or to become involved. For others, life is already hard enough, fraught with danger and uncertainty; taking responsibility for and protecting themselves is a full-time job.

It is therefore all the more pathetic that Fick should try to suggest that he is among friends. Although he specifies that his proposed helpers should be “fighters,” “friends,” and “big guys,” he dare not point to anyone in particular. People stand up and move away, but still Fick keeps on talking, in the hope that eventually a kindly soul will take pity on him and take his part.

Besides the usually jagged and discordant music in the speech rhythms of its characters, there is also a great deal of actual music in the play, signalling the constant noise and bustle of city life. Here, silence is a very rare commodity. To illustrate this, the opening moments of the play are described as follows:

A noise from a crowd begins and reaches a peak as the curtain rises. From the wings come four Negro entertainers (two from each side) who sing a rock'n'roll song with much clapping, dancing, etc. They are accompanied by a typical clangy, catchy instrumentation. From far out on the apron they sing to the audience—very animated. As the song fades out, and they begin to move (still singing) back off the stage, the noise from the group rises again.40

Thus, music permeates the entire fabric of Balm in Gilead: during a rare calm moment, John observes that “When it gets quiet in here you almost think something's gonna happen” (act 1, p. 20), and the quartet of black singers starts up a “soft blues”41 Rake and Ernesto add to the overall circularity of the piece with their “round” song entitled “Men on the Corner,” the melody of which Wilson describes as “shockingly gentle; rocking; easy; soft; lilting.”42 This song requires that all participants sing a line each, taking turns; Rake encourages his friends to join in by singing the song through himself:

They laugh and jab
cavort and jump
and joke and gab
and grind and bump.
They flip a knife
and toss a coin
and spend their life
and scratch their groin.
They pantomime
a standing screw
and pass the time
with nought to do.
They swing, they sway
this cheerful crew,
with nought to say
and nought to do.

(act 1, p. 41)

To further the incessant musicality, Wilson also provides the music for this song (act 1, p. 41). Later, the concluding moments of Darlene's long monologue are accompanied by the quartet as they “harmonize in a rock'n'roll wordless ‘Boo, bop, boo, bah, day, dolie, olie day’ kind of rambling that gets louder and eventually takes over the scene.”43 Later, they sing a jazzed up version of the famous hymn “There Is a Balm in Gilead,”, which has provided the title of the play. The play concludes with another rendition of the “round” song, but this time performed “not as a round, but [with the cast] all singing softly and liltingly.”44

Wilson had a strong religious upbringing, and theological argument and imagery recur throughout his work (notably in Brontosaurus and Angels Fall). Indeed, he refers to his plays as “Baptist sermons,”45 whose purpose is to question behavior and motivation.

Of all Wilson's dramas, Balm in Gilead is perhaps the most deeply saturated with religion. Its monologues often resemble corrupt sermons; actions are repeated, giving an impression of iconographic imagery; music takes on a ritualistic, celebratory function; and the setting of the work echoes a city of lost souls akin to Sodom and Gomorrah. However, the only reference to any kind of balm in the play occurs during a conversation between Tig and Ernesto (act 1, p. 20) when they discuss the ancient rituals of the Egyptians.

In the Old Testament, Gilead is the name of both Manasseh's grandson and a historic mountainous region east of the River Jordan. Wilson uses the latter as a “type” for his play: in the books of Genesis and Jeremiah, Gilead is cited as being famous for its medicinal balm,46 although, in Hosea, it is described as “the iniquity of Gilead” and as “a city of evil doers, tracked with blood.”47 Yet another reference occurs in the book of Samuel, where it is noted that some of the Hebrews took refuge in Gilead to avoid the ravages of the Philistines.48

There are clear analogies to be made with contemporary New York and an earlier city of “iniquity” and of “evil doers”, not to mention a city of the disenfranchised clinging together and seeking refuge and comfort—or a soothing balm—away from the marauding and cut-throat city outside. As John Beaufort notes, “the irony of the title remains that there is no balm in this Manhattan Gilead. There is instead the vulnerable companionship of outcasts, destructive delusion of drugs, and pursuit of sordid pleasures.”49

It is noteworthy that Margaret Atwood's futuristic novel, The Handmaid's Tale (1987) is set in a late-twentieth century Monotheocracy named Gilead, whose spurious history is the subject of the Symposium reported at the conclusion of the novel. The audience is exhorted by the speaker to recall that Gileadean society was under a great deal of pressure and that therefore caution must be exercised in “passing moral judgement”50 on it.

Balm in Gilead is one of Wilson's most successful and critically acclaimed works. Since its premiere, it has enjoyed a high reputation among critics and audiences alike; it is a play that thrives on repetitions, counterpoints, and juxtapositions and that often seems to work in spite of itself. Sometimes so much is happening at once that confusion is a distinct possibility; that this is never realized testifies to Wilson's discipline as a dramatist.

For all the play's visual brilliance, for me its greatest strength resides in its manipulation of language. Wilson's ability to mold shards of street language into a kind of vibrant vers libre is first revealed here. Even the dim-witted Darlene's shaky grasp of story-telling is elevated into something profound and moving, and Dopey's and Fick's hallucinatory ramblings become far more than mundane and pointless verbiage. Much later, dramatists such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet were also to create poetry out of the basest forms of speech but, as early as 1964, Wilson's was the pioneering achievement in this area.

My passions have made me live and my passions have killed me


Burn This is an extraordinarily rich and complex work that both encompasses and expands upon almost every dramatic idea ever expressed by Wilson—while adding a few more. It is, effectively, the cumulative representation of all of his interests and obsessions. Here he explores sexual fascination and love, loss and grief, the formation of nontraditional familial groups, fear of urban life, homosexuality, the forced trendiness of modern New York living and its associated decline in oral communication, frustration, artistic creativity, loneliness, violence, and broad comedy. A rich texture is afforded by themes that at first appear diverse and unconnected, but soon meld to form a complex and satisfying drama.

Permeating the work is the leitmotif of loss, the impact of an artist's untimely death. For Wilson, the play was a personal challenge and even a kind of catharsis in that he wrote it following the death of a close friend, an artist who lived in Sag Harbor, New York, where the playwright resides. Wilson has stated that the somewhat cryptic title relates to an admonition a writer might add to the head of each page of a particularly personal letter or essay. If the author constantly reminds himself that what is being written is so private that it can be burned if necessary, without being seen by anyone else, he might be encouraged to release his inhibitions and commit the absolute truth to paper. Thus, when Wilson began work on this play in the fall of 1985, he wrote the words “burn this” at the top of every page, to spur himself to be as open and as honest as possible. No vulnerability was to be spared, no pain unconfronted. Ironically, it is Burton, the high-flying but rather shallow screenwriter in the play, who actually describes the title: “Make it as personal as you can … Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write ‘Burn this’ on it” (act 2, p. 60).

Robert Allan Ackerman, director of the London productions of the play, describes the creative process involved:

… after you have expressed your most personal thoughts, especially as a writer or any artist, once you've expressed your most personal, most naked self, you have the option then to destroy it, but the important thing is to go through the process of expressing and searching and looking inside yourself for those very, very personal thoughts, the artistic expression of them. It is the process that is important.51

In many ways, Burn This is a song of innocence and experience. During the years leading up to Robbie's death and her meeting with Pale, Anna has largely avoided confronting genuine emotion and has maintained an almost adolescent innocence. Her apparent dedication to dance has, in reality, had little more depth than the strangulated screenplays of her lover, Burton, which always strive toward important and epic themes, but remain resolutely earthbound and faintly ludicrous. Experiences were not something in which this couple became involved, but merely events that occurred without really touching them.

Anna does seem to have genuine creative potential where Burton does not, but, as Lou Liberatore (who has played Larry since the play's inception) observes, she has compromised her talents in the name of leading a “beautiful but shallow existence, making cute little dances that look pretty but really go nowhere.”52 To create, one must first experience, and Anna's experience evolves out of the rigorous emotional shaking she receives from Pale. Marshall Mason believes Pale represents

all that is uncivilized; what we don't like to deal with in life; these are perhaps the sources that the artist must draw from: the deep fears, the awful guilts, the horrors.53

Wilson confirms this, observing that

The play has to do with art and what you have to know and what you have to go through before you can do anything worthwhile; before you are able to produce something that people will recognize and believe in. Pale allows Anna to become an artist; he makes her live again.54

At least one critic has suggested that the apparently philistine Pale is the only true artist in the play, calling it “a play about art in which the strongest sensibility belongs to a character who looks upon artists as frauds.”55 Certainly Pale believes in his own creative potential, stating that he “could've been a dancer” (act 1, p. 39) and that he has composed “whole symphonies … tone poems, concertos … huge big orchestrations” (ibid.) in the shower. Just how seriously we are meant to take this is unclear, although John Malkovich (Pale in both American and British productions of the work) believes that he may have artistic abilities that have been ground down over the years: “He sees himself as a creative person, but he's never had the chance to do anything about it. That's one reason why he resents his brother's success as an artist.”56

Although Pale may have an artistic temperament, he cannot really be regarded as an artist because he does not create art—although he certainly facilitates its expression in Anna. His reaction to the world may be vibrant and sensitive, but that does not make him an artist, despite what he says. Burn This stresses the necessity of committing oneself, of taking responsibility. It is insufficient, Wilson seems to be saying, merely to have unfulfilled ideas in one's head without committing them to paper or acting them out; it is essential to write it down, to express it, to create something of importance. After this, if necessary, it can be destroyed.

A clear progression can be traced from Balm in Gilead to Burn This. In some respects the two works could hardly be more different—the social milieus are completely dissimilar—but there are in fact many similarities. The sheer energy that permeates Burn This, its characters' intensity of expression, and its raw emotion coupled with the bleakest comedy clearly link it with the earlier play. Similarly, the language Wilson uses here is closer to Balm in Gilead than to any other play. For example, Pale's “tree speech” (act 1, p. 35) is written in a stream of consciousness style similar to that of Dopey's cockroach monologue (act 1, pp. 26-27). Wilson describes the surrealism of such language as having “a logic that is very special, very tenuous, and very specific to that character's train of thought.”57

Many of the plays Wilson wrote between the two appear to move away consciously from the rawness of expression common to both toward a milder, more overtly poetic kind of drama. In works such as The Hot l Baltimore, for example, Wilson continued to mold what appears to be ordinary speech into poetry, but his method had become far more subtle; the lyricism had no separate existence and blended invisibly into the whole. During the years that followed, Wilson continued to work in this vein, his refinement of language becoming more and more extreme, perhaps climaxing in Angels Fall, written in 1983. This play is virtually a tone poem, so finely attenuated, so filled with what Marshall Mason calls “soft and gentle grace notes,”58 its language and action so subtly and completely integrated that it could scarcely become more genteel without risking blandness.

Wilson became aware of this continuing tendency in his writing when he saw a revival of Balm in Gilead, and immediately set about writing Burn This with the intention from the outset to consciously link the two works in an effort to recapture some of the creative energy he felt he had lost:

I had just seen John Malkovich's revival of Balm in Gilead and I thought, God, I used to have such incredible energy; where has all that energy and imagination gone? … so in Burn This I was trying to get back some of that energy and put it into the kind of plays I write now. Also, I think some of the play could be interpreted as Pale being representative of Balm in Gilead and the other three characters standing for myself, just so complacent and sophisticated and above it all. … so Pale is there to goose the others—and myself—into doing something fresh and worthwhile.59

Malkovich clearly agrees with this assessment, seeing the work as Wilson's

attempt to get back to a kind of raw—rawer—perhaps darker—expression … away from the Talley plays. Some of Lanford's earlier plays like Balm in Gilead,Home Free! and The Madness of Lady Bright are unbelievably dark. Burn This is similar.60

This is further borne out by Marshall Mason who notes that:

There's a kind of harkening back to Lanford's earlier impulses here; he wanted to move away from being overtly poetic and refined and to find again the danger and energy of his early work, although there is still much to admire in the poetry of Burn This. Pale breaks into the beautiful, rather artificial world that Lanford has created and explodes it. … Pale's energy comes from the same place as that in Balm in Gilead; in fact, the two works are very similar in many ways.61

The extent of Mason's contributions to and involvement in the development of Wilson's work has changed over the years. In some works his involvement has been considerable; on occasion, he “insisted certain things had to be changed and served almost as an in-house critic.”62 To Burn This, however, his contribution was minimal:

I really haven't had a lot to do with it. In this play Lanford has looked for those forces in our urban life that are huge and undeniable and that we spend a lot of our civilized life avoiding. We think of civilization as protecting us from the abyss, but in fact our civilization has itself become a force to be reckoned with.63

The play hinges on the sudden death of Robbie, an unseen gay man who has died in a boating accident while out with his boyfriend. Although Robbie never appears, he is crucial to the work; the crisis and change that his death precipitates in each of the onstage characters forces them to confront their inadequacy and vulnerability, as well as their fears of mortality. His importance was deeply felt by Robert Allan Ackerman; during rehearsals, the cast would improvise situations that might occur had Robbie actually been in the work.

We spent a lot of time talking about Robbie, and what the others would have done if he had actually been there, and what he meant and represented to each of them. We all felt that he was as important a character as anyone on the stage, so fundamental was his impact on their lives.64

Robbie's ability to influence the lives of his friends extends even beyond death; as a result of the accident, they are introduced to his elder brother. In the early hours of the morning, Jimmy (known as Pale, because of his fondness for VSOP brandy), erupts into the play with volcanic rage, ostensibly to collect his brother's belongings. Nothing is ever the same again. Pale brings with him the dangers, the gross realities, and the seamier aspects of New York street life. However, his invasion also brings with it vibrancy and passion, raw truth, and, for Anna, the possibility of genuine and unfettered love.

A major concern in Burn This is undoubtedly love—not a love that is in any way clichéd or romanticized, but one that engulfs and transforms. Wilson has stated that he set out to write an adult love story, but one that tackled and elucidated issues usually ignored or side-stepped by most authors. He recalls:

I was trying to push myself further than I had gone in a love story. I had seen thousands of love stories and I always felt they didn't go far enough; they didn't show what really happens … I wanted to write about what love really is and how sexual it is and how beyond sexual it is, how it transforms and the sacrifices that you have to make, what you have to go through to find someone to love.65

Similarly, Tanya Berezin observes that

Burn This deals with love itself; not really romantic love—although the play is astonishingly sexual—but real love. It is a question of giving up part of yourself in order to let another person into your life.66

Throughout Burn This, Wilson stresses the need for emotional involvement and risk-taking, even when this may seem foolhardy or, indeed, dangerous. In the relationship that develops between Pale and Anna, the play finds its raison d'être: a plea for commitment to a loving relationship despite the potential hazards inherent in sexual contact. Better to experience the pain of a genuine loving relationship, Wilson seems to urge, than merely to exist in bland mediocrity.

He cites Iris Murdoch's novel A Severed Head as having made a contribution to the play. In this work, the protagonists embark upon a potentially destructive, certainly enervating, love affair that Wilson describes as “a collision course relationship. The man asks the woman if they will ever be happy, and she replies ‘Happy has nothing to do with this.’ Their relationship just has to be.67

Burn This has proven to be one of Wilson's most successful ventures, both critically and at the box office. An important focus for the attention it received by the media was undoubtedly ex-Steppenwolf actor John Malkovich's extraordinarily feral, yet sensitive, central performance as Pale. This was hailed, almost without exception, as a landmark in contemporary acting. His interpretation of Pale is so central to the play that it bears close scrutiny here; Wilson had written half of the role before he saw Malkovich in action and then completed it with him in mind. It is difficult to conceive of the play without the strength of Malkovich's portrayal, so perfectly does he adapt the demands of the work to his powerful acting technique.

Malkovich was one of the founding members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, based in Highland Park, Chicago. Between its inception in 1976 and 1982, Malkovich acted in, directed, or designed sets for over fifty productions. The Company is noted for the passion, creativity, and energy of its performers, and for their original—often unsettling—productions of contemporary and classic plays. Malkovich is, to date, the most famous Steppenwolf alumnus working both in the theatre and in such films as The Killing Fields, Death of a Salesman, Dangerous Liaisons, The Sheltering Sky, The Object of Beauty, and Of Mice and Men, but many of the original members have made successful careers in theatre and film.

During a BBC programme dedicated to the work of Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, a long-time member of the Company, theorized about how the dynamic and often overtly aggressive techniques adopted by the Company have evolved and noted that they have been variously described as “rock and roll” or risk-taking;68 John Mahoney, another Steppenwolf member, described the Company's approach as profoundly intense, whether acting Noël Coward or Sam Shepard; the sheer intensity of application that the Company brings to each of the works it performs is its most notable trait.69

The Steppenwolf method of acting certainly found a willing and creative interpreter in Malkovich whose primary aim as an actor is to present in as honest and direct a manner as possible salient aspects of the human condition. If this involves aggression or violence, so be it; he seizes upon such opportunities to depict the truth of those he portrays. He acknowledges that he does, perhaps, have more anger and aggression in his personality than most people,70 but insists that this is channelled and focused during performance. Michael Billington believes that Malkovich has “great presence”71 and believes that:

… what Malkovich brings onstage in Burn This is first of all a sense of danger, unpredictability, wildness … you never quite know with Malkovich what he is going to do next. And I think danger is crucial to good acting. … that quality that you find in nearly all the best American acting—the ability to live the moment; it's an extraordinary ability, to concentrate that.. intensity onstage.72

Milton Shulman described Malkovich's interpretation of Pale as “rampaging, threatening, mesmeric,”73 while Jack Tinker commented upon his “wall-blasting intensity.”74

Aggression and ferocity were not, however, the only aspects of his performance that attracted attention. There is a peculiar kind of virile effeminacy about Pale that Malkovich shares and that he explored to the full in creating the role. Robert Allan Ackerman recalls Malkovich's feminine characteristics as constituting

a particularly telling part of his nature. In the tea-making scene when he cossets that kettle and makes what must be the best cup of tea in the world, he presents such a wonderful image; in that woman's bath-robe with his long hair, cleaning up like some Italian housewife.75

Similarly, Michael Simkins believes that, without this aspect of Malkovich's performance, the play could easily have fallen into a typically heterosexual/homosexual comedy of manners:

There is a very feminine air to Malkovich. Feminine but not effeminate. By openly exploring that part of his personality, he gave the production colossal strength. … That was one of the wonders: his being able to be both toweringly powerful and-delicately vulnerable, almost at the same moment. Instead of the gay element becoming compartmentalized, John's performance allowed something of that to run through the play. It marbled the whole work. I am sure there were audiences who thought that Larry and Pale would end up together!76

Pale's persona is in some ways very close to that projected by Malkovich himself, and it is interesting to note, Bernardo Bertolucci's opinion of the actor. After directing him in the film version of Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, where he plays the complex central character—an emotionally deracinated musician abroad in a desert landscape—Bertolucci saw him in Burn This. To him, the actor represented the perfect manifestation of the existential hero: attractive though lonely, hardened by life's experience yet vulnerable, tough but at the same time curiously delicate.77 Thus, violence and sweetness of nature coexist; a seemingly impermeable surface is, in reality, as fragile as glass.

The potency and complexity of Malkovich's acting have led a number of critics to compare him to the young Marlon Brando. For example, Kenneth Hurren cited Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire as an apt forerunner.78 Irving Wardle wrote that Malkovich brought to the play “the animal magnetism of Brando's Stanley Kowalski,”79 and Michael Billington felt that, “like Brando [Malkovich] combines an imploding intensity with sudden, revealing touches of feminine gentleness.”80 For his performance in the London productions of Burn This, Malkovich was nominated for various theatre awards and won the Time Out Awards Best Actor prize for 1990.

Although it is never made explicit, Burn This is also an exploration of the effects of AIDS on those its victims leave behind. Wilson has stated that Robbie's character is symbolic of the AIDS virus, in that his untimely and tragic demise is perhaps occasioned by the fact that he is homosexual. Much ambiguity surrounds his death; there is an underlying suggestion in the play that, because of Robbie's openness about his homosexuality—he even broadcast it on national television—he has been murdered by sinister and hostile forces within his own family or by the Mafia. Pale certainly regards Robbie's death as “No fuckin' accident,” (act 2, p. 70) and tells Anna that “the mob did it” (ibid.). Later, Anna relates another of Pale's anecdotes to Larry:

… [Pale] was saying he and his dad and their cronies got to drinking, someone says I saw your fruit brother on the TV with his boyfriend. All the usual fag-baiting braggadocio. Someone ought to off the fucker, embarrassment to the family, that crap. And a couple of nights later, Robbie's dead.

(act 2, pp. 74, 75)

Tanya Berezin elaborates on this possibility:

Robbie dies, and on one level there is the question of whether he dies because he is gay, and I think that is the connection with AIDS in a concrete, though symbolic, way. Does Robbie's family have Mafia connections who want him out of the way? It's possible, but we simply do not know. The untimely loss of what is assumed to be a major talent is something that we in the theatre and the arts have been going through for the last ten years, and this is Lanford's way of dramatizing such loss.81

Similarly, Marshall Mason observes that:

Although AIDS is referred to only very indirectly, the play is saturated with its consequences. The resultant intense feelings of loss and frustration—here epitomized by Pale—are only too familiar to those in the arts who have lost friends and colleagues.82

The specter of AIDS moves insidiously through the lives of all the characters, forcing them to adapt their sexual habits and to protect themselves in any way they can. Perhaps the most tragic figure in the play is Larry, despite his wisecracking persona and ironic acceptance of his lot. He is alone, without a partner, living vicariously through the relationships of those around him.

After Burton's recollection of his homosexual experience in the snow, Larry wistfully observes, “Lord, the innocence and freedom of yesterday” (act 2, p. 63). Full of camp bravado, Larry is nonetheless clearly terrified; he rejects the possibility of a serious relationship because of his fears, and he does not even manage to attend the gay New Year's Eve party where, he says, “the suicide rate is higher than all of Scandinavia combined” (act 2, p. 57).

Robert Allan Ackerman describes Larry's life as being “in a very sorry state … because of AIDS, he is living in a city where gay life has completely had the lid put on, and where everyone is very, very afraid.”83 Larry is thus imprisoned because of his fear of contracting the disease; when even the formation of a loving, sexual relationship can result in a fatal illness, a carefully cultivated survival strategy must be developed; in Larry's case, this takes the form of completely opting out of a sexual life. Lou Liberatore notes that

Larry doesn't really know how sad he is until the end of the play; it really hits him then and he asks what he has done with his life. He has to face something very, very painful.84

Larry's marginalization enables Wilson to utilize him as a kind of mordantly witty chorus whose remarks both contribute to and comment on the action around him. He acts as a filter for the rest of the proceedings, the constant that allows the variables of the play to interact in a far more candid fashion than if he did not exist, facilitating the emotional interaction of others. Tragically, his fear of involvement precludes his own participation in similar scenarios. As Liberatore says,

Larry is the lynch-pin. A lot hinges on him. Because he is the outsider in a way, and not really part of the relationships onstage, he can balance the other characters, keep things in order, stop them from getting out of hand. He is the objective chorus that allows the audience to understand and participate in the work. It would be too frightening to watch the violent scene between Pale and Anna without Larry's presence; he deflects the tension and keeps it tolerable. He is far more than mere wisecracks and gay humor.85

Although Larry's predicament is perhaps the saddest in the play, AIDS stains the lives of its heterosexual characters, too. Juliet Stevenson, who played Anna in the London productions of the play, identifies the terrible irony of a fatal virus that attacks the very core of human relationships:

AIDS is so horrible, so evil, because even if you sleep with somebody, one of the most natural and normal human things you can do and, ironically, what should bring people together, you are endangering yourself and the other person. You become contaminated.86

In such a climate, intimate relationships can flourish, but they are often superficial and unfulfilling. For the most part, safe mediocrity is preferable to unpredictable passion. Until she meets Pale, and a different, vibrant world opens up for her, Anna has, in the main, sought solace and affection from her male homosexual friends—indeed, she has shared her apartment with two of them for a number of years. By comparison, her relationship with Burton appears to be rather sterile, a compromise, although the love on his part seems genuine enough.

The concept of AIDS, thus infecting the play and forming an apt and very modern metaphor for fear of human involvement, permits Wilson to explore the complexities of sexual mores in contemporary New York. However, Wilson utilizes its metaphorical potency in more than one way. While it permits him to illustrate emotional compromise in three of his characters, it also allows him to exemplify the antithesis in the character of Pale.

Here is a man who may have yielded to pressure and compromise in the past, but who has now reached breaking point. His brother's death and his own sense of guilt, frustration, and remorse have combined to sharpen his pain. Realizing that he has failed his brother by rejecting him because of homosexuality, Pale has also always resented Robbie's success as a dancer—an artist who could enjoy freedom of expression through his work. Furthermore, Pale has ruined any chance of happiness with his own wife and family and has betrayed himself and his own potential; he can no longer cope with this overwhelming frustration save by excessive drinking and drug abuse. Carrying so much pain within him, he is exhausted from the effort of living.

Pale feels everything keenly. As if his intense guilt and the acknowledgment of his own failure were not enough, he also recognizes that the life he has lived till now has been a sham and that most of what he has believed in has also been a lie. Wilson remarks

Pale has been done in. He has done himself in; his whole life is just a mockery of anything that he could really buy into. … he is, by far, one of the best examples of the walking wounded I have ever written.87

John Malkovich describes Pale's life experience as

just terrible … he has been working his ass off his whole life. Such ridiculously hard work. He has been married since he was eighteen, just a kid, and now, at work, there's always some problem, some person who's doing something wrong, something always going wrong. He has to deal with everything, and it's killing him. He is called upon to take responsibility constantly.88

Pale represents all that is hazardous and threatening, but at the same time demonstrates an authentic, if warped, innocence and need. Full of paradoxes, he is foul-mouthed, almost insanely aggressive, and yet strangely vulnerable. For Marshall Mason, he is the embodiment of everything brutal and uncultivated,

He is a monster of need. He typifies the basic animalistic sexual persona, the childlike take-what-you-need-when-you-need-it mentality, and the need to grab life and squeeze it. There's a primitive aspect to Pale that is very heartfelt and gutfelt, and in complete contrast to the other characters in the work who are so refined. He really shakes them up! Anna's life is so genteel, so far away from genuine feelings, of deep fears and real love. Pale awakens all this in her again.89

In the way that he suddenly bursts onto the scene, spitting with anger and frustration and permeating the atmosphere with his unrestrained sexuality, Pale invades the lives of the other characters as powerfully as their fear of the lethal virus. He is, however, by no means a negative character; he is the fulcrum of change on which all is finally—perhaps positively—resolved. He “gives Anna back her life”90 and enables her to become a creative artist.

The dance that Anna eventually creates arises from the anguish of her relationship with Pale, which despite the pain, has invigorated her and facilitated an artistically truthful representation of their love affair. In creating the work, Anna undergoes a profound catharsis and is finally liberated. Larry attempts to describe her achievement for Burton:

… I can testify that the work she's doing is phenomenal … it's a regular man—dancing like a man dances—in a bar or something, with his girl. You've never seen anything like it.

(act 2, pp. 91, 93)

Even Pale is impressed, if embarrassed, at the nakedness of the representation: “That was me and you up there. Only we ain't never danced. I could probably sue you for that” (act 2, p. 97).

Pale represents for Anna the second tidal wave of emotion that has recently engulfed her, the first being the shock of Robbie's death and her subsequent sense of loss and outrage. Because of this initial emotional upheaval she is, in a way, prepared for Pale when he bursts into her life; he matches the depth of her anger and she sees in him a kindred spirit. During rehearsals, Robert Allan Ackerman was inspired by a Laura Nyro song entitled “Stony End”; The lyrics of this always made him think of Anna:

This song was written long before I knew the play, but it seems to be so pertinent. It talks about the fury and raging thunders that come to match a raging soul, and I believe that is what happens here with Anna and Pale.91

This is confirmed by Juliet Stevenson:

Anna comes to recognize and accept her anger and outrage. She finishes the first part of act 1 in a mood of great frustration and resentment, recalling Robbie's funeral; she didn't have a moment alone to say goodbye to him and vows never to forgive his family for the way they treated him—and her. The next minute, anger in the form of Pale comes in through the door, and it's a recognition! It is “I”! … When you are in a state of extremis, and you feel your skin has been ripped off, everything that used to interest you or involve you no longer does; what Anna had now means little; everything needs re-evaluating. She needs Pale as the focus of her anger and hatred. What she feels, he feels. It is a great relief.92

Before the advent of Pale, Anna had relied on her relationships with Burton, Larry, and, especially, Robbie. As the play progresses, it gradually becomes apparent that she has long been in love with Robbie without being able to admit or express it; suddenly, Pale enters her life—virtually Robbie's physical double, the heterosexual embodiment of a man she has loved for years without ever being able to satisfy her sexual frustration. She can finally realize her dream of a love affair with the living image of an idealized partner.

However, before Pale's arrival, Anna has endured the endless futility of yearning for the reciprocal—physical—love of a gay man. No doubt, her dilemma was exacerbated by the fact that she and Robbie were both dancers and, consequently, in constant close, physical contact with each other. As Juliet Stevenson observes,

I believe Anna was tremendously attracted to Robbie in a very physical way, and that their proximity during dances and rehearsals just increased her desire for him. Their relationship stopped just short of them actually being lovers.93

Similarly, Robert Allan Ackerman describes the frustration Anna must have felt because of her sexual attraction to a gay man: “Dancers are extraordinarily physical with one another; they have their hands in each other's crotches, their legs are wrapped around each other—they are forever in intimate poses.”94

Notwithstanding these frustrations, there is still much to be gained from platonic relationships: although painful, they can be a source of much happiness and emotional support, offering unconditional affection and loyalty. For these very reasons, however, they present their own problems. As Juliet Stevenson remarks,

Women's relationships with gay men are so complex. I have them in my own life … I often find that they are most intimate and of great importance. … they are a source of enormous gain but also enormous loss, because you get to a point where you are safe with them and that's why they are valuable, and it's also why they are a problem to you because you can't go beyond.95

It was, perhaps, for this very reason that Anna's artistic relationships with Robbie could never have been very strong, despite their obvious compatibility. Indeed, such compatibility was perhaps why their work was unable to progress beyond mediocrity; it precluded any real intensity. This is borne out in comments Anna makes concerning her work and the extent of outside influences; she frets that her choreography has been shaped too much by her colleague, Charley: “I could walk down the street, it's Charley walking down the street, it isn't me” (act 1, p. 20).

In counterpoint to the inevitable compromises entailed by straight/gay friendships, Wilson comments with deadly irony—and great humor—on some of the pitfalls of heterosexual affairs. Pale and Burton are, after all, rivals for Anna's love and their physical demonstration of their affection for her is both excessive and humiliating for all concerned. They actually engage in combat over her, and endeavor to outdo each other in manly braggadocio—what Anna calls “macho bullshit” (act 2, p. 73)—circling like animals about to strike.

The result is unintentionally hysterical, as Burton constantly moves around Pale, referring to him as “fella” and “buddy” (act 2, pp. 71, 72). Since Burton is by profession a screenwriter, it is tempting to link his language here with the heroes he creates on film; certainly, his choice of words is evocative of the likes of Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood. As if this were not embarrassing enough, Burton demonstrates his knowledge of the martial arts, while Pale laughs at his efforts, refusing to be drawn into what he considers to be a ludicrous display: “Nobody does that shit, nobody pulls that shit” (act 2, p. 71). Later, Pale calls him “Bruce” in a reference to kung fu star, Bruce Lee (act 2, p. 80). For Pale, in violent struggle as in all things, the straightforward approach is the one to adopt, his strategy is to lunge and punch, kick and trip. He pays little heed either to the etiquette of the martial arts or to the Queensborough Rules.

In an effort both to support Anna against her warring lovers and to inject some light relief into the situation, Larry eventually tries to evict Pale from her apartment by saying: “Pale? It's not as butch as Burton, but if you don't leave, I'll hit you over the head with a skillet. I'm not joking” (act 2, p. 73). At the end of this fiasco and in acknowledgment of Larry's injection of some wit and sanity, it is hardly surprising that Anna should observe that “I could live my life very well, thank you, without ever seeing another straight man” (act 2, p. 74).

Although the relationship between Anna and Burton is built on compromise (the opening lines of the play exemplify Anna's apathy: “Uh, Burton, could we make it another … Sighs, buzzes him in …)” (act 1, p. 6), it is by no means totally unsatisfactory. There is genuine affection on both sides, even to the extent of Anna's seriously considering getting married. Certainly Larry would be in favor of that: “I don't know why you don't just marry him and buy things” (act 1, p. 19). John Malkovich believes that Burton is “a great guy”96 and that “the relationship between he and Anna is as strong as most.”97 In his opinion,

Burton's just fine, but that's not necessarily enough or even what Anna wants. Therein lies the lesson. Why do women like Rhett Butler? It's because he says “I don't give a damn”; it's attractive to women. Pale has that kind of attraction for her. There's nothing wrong with Burton, though, he just isn't enough for her at that time.98

Burton realizes that he cannot compete with Pale, who is an unknown, alien entity, completely outside of Burton's experience and hence impossible to compete with. Burton is completely mystified that an uncouth, foul-mouthed and lower-class (certainly less wealthy) man has been able to steal Anna from him. Clearly, whatever it is that Anna sees in Pale, Burton does not possess. Finally, however, he realizes that he has never really deserved Anna. Michael Simkins notes:

He is basically a good guy, but so full of himself. All those forced anecdotes! What saves him is that he finally realizes in the last scene with Larry that he just isn't good enough; it has all been slightly phony, slightly unreal. He is a poseur, but a poseur with redeeming qualities. He's not a bad fellow. Anna could have done a lot worse.99

In his setting of the work, Wilson extends the metaphor of restraint that, before Pale's invasion, has epitomized the characters' lives. The action takes place in a converted New York loft in the artistic environs of Lower Manhattan, the minimalist decor and nonchalant sophistication being described as “the sort of place that you would kill for or wouldn't be caught dead in” (p. 5). Pale certainly remains deeply unimpressed with the loft, constantly complaining about the heat, describing it as “a empty fuckin' warehouse” (act 1, p. 32), and deriding its supposedly desirable location overlooking the river:

(Looking out the window) That's the bay, huh, the river? Jesus. What a thing to look at. Oh, look, darling, they got tugboats pushin', like, these flatcars; like, five flatcars piled about a mile high with all this city garbage and shit. Who the fuck wants to look at that? You pay for a view of that? Maybe there's people find that fascinating, that's not what I call a view.

(act 1, p. 30)

Pale cannot comprehend the attraction of such a view or of living in close proximity to the city's rubbish; he despises what he sees as a middle-class affectation, a desire to be close to “reality” without actually confronting it. As a working-class man for whom such realities are only too common, this ersatz realism is a ready target.

The loft's stark, simplistic design—no frills or obvious signs of conspicuous wealth—offers a specious sense of security to its tenants; once locked behind their reinforced steel doors, they pretend that nothing can harm them, and they persuade themselves that they are safe, in control of their lives, and able to survive. John Malkovich identifies the fundamental difference between Pale's attitude to the terrors of New York and that of the cosseted loft-dwellers:

These characters in their expensive apartment are, metaphorically, like people who don't know, or don't want to know, that there is a maniac killer in it, whereas Pale knows full well that the danger always exists, and that the killer is there all the time.100

Their security is thus essentially illusory; though reluctant to admit it, because any acknowledgment may somehow make it a reality, Wilson's tenants conduct their lives behind a veil of barely suppressed panic masquerading as sophisticated irony.

The relationship that develops between Pale and Anna enables her not only to flourish as an artist, but to cope better with the pressures of city living. His practicality and strength rub off on her and transform long-pent-up terrors into endurable burdens. Born of a wealthy family in suburban Highland Park (which Lou Liberatore describes as “very nice, rich suburbs, very Kennedy”101 Anna has led a very sheltered life; watched over by both Robbie and Burton, she has never had to fend for herself or accept real criticism.

In truth, she has seldom had to take responsibility for anything important. As Larry observes, “She's had a very protected life. I mean, she's never had to even carry her own passport or plane tickets—she's not had to make her own way much.” (act 2, p. 94). Moreover, life in New York has gradually eroded what stamina and resilience she originally possessed; paranoia about the dangers of the city has caused her to lead a careful unadventurous life, marked by caution, superficiality, and undue circumspection. Suddenly exposed to grief and raw fear, she naturally gravitates toward a man who can offer her strength—if not stability. Juliet Stevenson analyzes it thus:

You can understand the attraction of that kind of animal strength, because at least if someone like Pale was on your side it would be a bonus. Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry is so entitled because it is about grafting one thing onto another and making it stronger. It's a horticultural metaphor; experts do this with cherries or apples or whatever. In a way, I think Anna grafts herself to Pale to allow herself to flourish and survive.102

Wilson includes much symbolism in this play: virtually every cinematic or literary allusion has a connection with the unfolding tale; even the “love story” that Burton sets out to write is probably Burn This. By far the most striking symbol throughout the play is heat and flame, the intensity of Pale's body temperature, the color red, passion, and, of course, the title.

Time and again, Wilson works in such references, sometimes several per page. For example, Pale sarcastically decries Anna's impatience to call the Salvation Army to pick up Robbie's clothes: “What's this huge rush? They're on fire or something? Spontaneous combustion, something?” Moments later, he hears a noise from the radiator and complains that “The fuckin' room's a oven, bake pizza here, they turn on some heat.” When Anna protests that it is the middle of winter, Pale tells her: “I got like a toaster oven I carry around with me in my belly someplace. I don't use heat. I sleep the windows open, no covers” (act 1, p. 29). All these references are clearly intended to reflect the intense passions that percolate throughout the work, always on the verge of explosion or cataclysm. Lou Liberatore elaborates:

The whole idea of fire and passion, flame and red, hot and burn is central to the play; it's about being fired up, the spark of Anna's heart, new passions being unleashed and so on. It's a very hot play!103

Many other symbols occur throughout the play, not least in the references to Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman. The Dutchman is condemned to perdition unless he can find a girl who will love him, but he is allowed only limited chances to succeed. He meets and falls in love with Senta, who is already in love with another; however, she does fall in love with the Dutchman and sacrifices herself for his sake, throwing herself into the fjord to save him from eternal damnation. Once she does so, “The sea starts boiling, the Dutchman's ship sinks, all hell breaks loose” (act 1, p. 15). The connections are obvious, the boiling sea being linked by Wilson to the stormy waters ahead for Pale and Anna.

Of the play's many symbols of awakening and liberation, two are perhaps the most potent: Anna's description of the live butterflies “beating their bodies against the walls” (act 1, p. 21) when she stayed at Robbie's family home during the funeral and of Pale unpinning them (act 1, p. 22). And later she wallows in metaphorical mud to acknowledge her potential fecundity after a bout with Pale: “… a brood sow. Flat out in the mud, with about ten piglets squealing around you, trying to nurse. … Their eyes rolled back in their heads? Lying back in the sun, in some other world” (act 2, pp. 57, 58).

Burn This is not a play capable of attracting a half-hearted response; critics and audiences either welcome it as a superbly vitriolic and observant study of art, life, and death in contemporary New York, or they condemn it as a worthless indulgence in sickly sentiment and pretentiousness. It has been variously described as “enthralling … an affecting humanist play,”104 “a great play, part comedy and part tragedy,”105 like “Chekhov on speed,”106 “a four-hander thirtysomething … crossed with a wisecracking sitcom,”107 “a wry Manhattan fantasy,”108 and a “blazingly violent and hugely compelling story.”109

The work certainly appears to inspire great affection in those who have been involved in its production. Each member of its London cast was delighted to have been associated with it, and the director believes that it is

a wonderful play … it's incredibly likable, incredibly moving, intelligent, just so rich and alive and full of perception and wit and humor and insight … Almost more than any play I have done, I can still watch this over and over and be moved by it and laugh at it.110

But Burn This has been castigated for what some see as sentimentality and implausibility of plot, as well as for its enormous dramatic reach, which has led at least one critic to observe that “Wilson has two or three plays occupying the same stage.”111 Others see it as “disappointingly flabby and soft-centered,”112 as a work with “no centre of gravity and no centrifugal force”113 and “a wish-fulfilment exercise of the hoariest kind.”114

I would argue that this play is far from sentimental, although the closing tableau could, for example, imply a “happy ending” in an insensitive production. In reality, Anna and Pale's predicament is far from cloying, or even optimistic: the couple recognize that what lies ahead, is inevitable and will almost certainly bring anguish and suffering:

I don't want this … Oh, Lord, I didn't want this. …
I know. I don't want it, either. I didn't expect nothin' like this.

(act 2, p. 99)

Mel Gussow observes that Wilson “exposes deep, uncauterized emotional wounds—and offers no salve”115 and that, while the play ends with Pale and Anna about to embark upon a perilous affair, “it would be precipitous to think of that as a happy ending. There is no guarantee of durability in this relationship.”116 The resignation with which they both confront the future is summed up by Wilson as

something they both know they have to go through or they will never be able to look themselves in the face again. But the play is not about cottage small by the waterfall; it's not about moving to the suburbs and leading a normal life. I wouldn't give them a plugged nickel for their chances, but they wouldn't either, so who knows? It's not about that; it's not even about their standards by the end of the play. Having said that, I don't think they will destroy each other and I believe they will emerge as stronger people. What they feed on from each other is positive, not negative.117

It is true that a strong production is needed to convince an audience that this pair would eventually come together, after having been throughout as diametrically opposed as “two different breeds of animal in the zoo.”118 What is once again apparent throughout Burn This is Wilson's compassion for his characters. As Marshall Mason has stated, Wilson's “softness of heart”119 often leads him into potentially sentimental situations, but he is constantly alert and on his guard to avoid them. I believe he has succeeded in so doing in this play, without in any way compromising or attenuating his affection for the characters.

Once again, critics are almost unanimous in their praise for Wilson's striking use of language, which is, as ever, meticulous and innovative, to match the massive scope of the work. Lasting three hours, Burn This is very demanding of its audience; as Lou Liberatore says, “There's a lot going on! … Some people hate it this long, others love it, most don't want it to end. There is so much.”120

Pale's scrupulously constructed arias of frustration dominate the work, despite the fact that he is, for quite long periods, not even onstage. Their power is simply overwhelming, and his presence impossible to ignore. The audience's first encounter with this character sets the tone for the rest of the work: his initial, raging soliloquy against the world in general and against parking problems, city living, and potholes in particular embodies the primal scream of the disaffected—and furious—New Yorker whose need for instant gratification is thwarted by constant frustration:

Goddamn this fuckin' place, how can anybody live this shit city? I'm not doin' it, I'm not drivin' my car this goddamn sewer, every fuckin' time. Who are these assholes? Some bug-eyed, fat-lipped half nigger, all right; some of my best friends, thinks he owns this fuckin' space. … Twenty-five fuckin' minutes I'm driving around this garbage street. … The only thing save this part of the city, they burn it down. … This has made me not as, you know—whatever—as I usually am.

(act 1, pp. 25, 26)

Although threatening in the extreme, Pale invites audience identification with his plight. As Michael Coveney amusingly observes, “He hates everyone. You warm to him immediately.”121 Lou Liberatore believes Pale to be the very epitome of city life—brutal, impatient, and frustrated:

Pale is very urban, of the city. He tells you what is on his mind absolutely. He doesn't edit. There is no pretense. Nothing at all. … The other characters don't talk about what they feel; they don't show what they feel, their emotions, but Pale does.122

Pale's relentless, coruscating obscenities almost collide as they explode from his lips. So keen is he to emphasize his disgust that he elides his sentences, as in “how can anybody live this shit city?” and “the only thing save this part of the city, they burn it down.” There simply isn't time during this oratorio for syntactical niceties. Perhaps the most telling elision occurs in Pale's description of the individual who has initiated all of this wrath: “Some bug-eyed, fat-lipped half nigger, all right; some of my best friends, thinks he owns this fuckin' space.” This callous invective reveals both viciousness and inherent racism before Pale quickly qualifies it by asserting, with a well-worn cliché, that he counts black people among his closest friends. The assertion is, however, difficult to take seriously in light of what has preceded it. A bit later, Pale is still worrying about the impression he has created, as he fumblingly states that the incident has confused and upset him: “This has made me not as, you know—whatever—as I usually am.”

Another of Pale's seemingly wild and anarchic monologues occurs a little later in the play and illustrates even more vividly the creativity and depth of Wilson's linguistic invention. Again, Pale is angry with the world in general, but this time his bile is directed toward an irritating fellow-drinker in a downtown bar, as he describes the incident that has led to his hand being bloodied and bandaged:

There was this character runnin' off at the mouth; I told him I'm gonna push his face in, he don't shut up. Now, this should be a fairly obvious statement, right? But this dipshit starts trying to explain to me what he's been saying ad nauseam all night, like there was some subtle gradation of thought that was gonna make it all right that he was mouthing this horseshit. So when I'm forced to bust the son of a bitch, he's down on the floor, he's dripping blood from a split lip, he's testing a loose tooth, and that fucker is still talking. Now, some people might think that this was the problem of this guy, he's got this motor going, he's not privy to where the shutoff valve is. But I gotta come to the conclusion that I'm weird. Cause I try to communicate with these jerkoffs in what is essentially the mother tongue, but no one is picking me up; they're not reading me.

(act 1, p. 34)

Wilson's sparing, but effective, use of coarse language, together with the many abbreviated sentences and missing link words, exactly conveys the frustration and disbelief Pale feels. Barroom argot and naturalistic rhythms are manipulated and combined to create an impression of absolute authenticity. Pale's delivery of his tale in the present tense adds to the sense of spontaneity, and the sudden juxtaposition of elevated speech with raw obscenities simultaneously adds to the truth of the passage and lends it a poetic edge.

Wilson's character delineation is also first-rate. To analyze this one speech is to learn almost everything there is to know about Pale. The stylistic peculiarities that proliferate in this character's self-righteous, though ingenuous, speech patterns enable Wilson to convey his very essence. It is essential that Pale's unpredictability should be as fully realized as the many contradictions and juxtapositions that make up his personality. Wilson builds on these elements, giving them oral exposition that artfully depicts Pale's many incongruities.

That his violent, explosive tendencies can believably coexist with an almost refined sensibility is expressed by his use of sophisticated or subtle phrases such as “ad nauseam,” “subtle gradation of thought” and “privy.” These are not words one would expect to hear alongside the scatology and rushed phrasing that make up most of the speech.

Although holding down a conventional job as a restaurant manager and being married with children, Pale is aeons away from conformity; he is a complex mixture of violent thug and sensitive naif, and apparently has a predilection for alcoholic or chemical stimulation. (A little earlier he had admitted to Anna that he “did maybe a couple lines [of cocaine] with Ray” [act 1, p. 31], but claimed that it does not affect him.)

It is typical that he should shift the blame for his own violent actions to the victim; he stresses that he has been “forced to bust the son of a bitch.” By refusing to take responsibility for his actions, he thereby exonerates himself. Even as his victim lies bleeding on the floor, Pale is unrepentant; instead, he maintains that, despite his very best efforts to make himself plainly understood, “in what is essentially the mother tongue,” the idiot in question was incapable of comprehension. Believing himself superior to the “jerkoffs” he meets, Pale selflessly gives them every opportunity to communicate with him. That they seem unable to do so leads to his ironic observation that, he, rather than they, must be “weird.” This is clearly not meant to be taken at all seriously; by so denigrating himself, Pale makes it all the more plain for his audience that he is an all-too reasonable man who is constantly misunderstood and abused.

These excursions into the depths of Pale's angst are by no means mere excuses for scatological excess. Wilson manages to make them very funny by means of verbal juxtapositions. Pale constantly surprises us by the unexpected quaintness of a particular turn of phrase. Into the midst of his first ferocious outburst a grammatically strangled, yet almost polite, phrase is suddenly injected: “I mean no personal disparagement of the neighborhood in which you have your domicile, honey, but this street's dying of crotch rot” (act 1, p. 26).

Even this early on, Wilson hints at submerged, unseen elements of Pale's personality. This tirade may have the cadences of realistic speech, but it is far from prosaic. Its combination of high-flown phrases with the downright demotic is typical of Wilson, who frequently allows his wilder characters thus to expose unexpected sides.

It is instructive to compare Wilson's use of scabrous though emotionally loaded language with that used in similar situations in the drama of David Mamet. Mamet has, in fact, cited Wilson as a primary influence on his writing: “The contemporary playwright I admire the most is Lanford Wilson.”123 Conversely, Wilson greatly admires Mamet's work, calling him “a wonderful writer—I adore his plays.”124 Using similar linguistic techniques, Wilson structures and paces explosive tirades into muscular verse, the expletives taking on a resonance that elevates them above mere verisimilitude into a heightened dramatic idiom.

A good opportunity for comparison occurs in Mamet's American Buffalo. Teach, a weak, deluded small-time crook believes that his coconspirator Don has somehow betrayed him and has acted “unprofessionally” by siding with and supporting Bobby, his pathetic young drug-addicted friend. In fact, Don's protection of and love for Bobby is one of the few genuine demonstrations of emotion in the play. It is typical of Teach that he should misinterpret affection for treachery:

You fake. You fucking fake. You fuck your friends. You have no friends. No wonder that you fuck this kid around. … You seek your friends with junkies. You're a joke on this street, you and him.(125)

Like Pale, Teach inverts or perverts facts in accord with his bitter self-righteousness; he instigates a (verbally) violent attack, blames others for it, and then demonstrates his convoluted sense of morality by his contemptuous and vicious denigration of his companions' friendship. There is great irony here, because Teach is conniving and perfidious in the extreme, easily capable of betraying a friend. The incongruity of the phrase, “You seek your friends with junkies,” appears to escape him; he is, after all one of Don's friends, too. Mamet conveys Teach's spluttering anger with alliteration and the repeated use of expletives; here, the word “fuck” becomes merely one of many obscenities since, in this context, “fake” and even “friend” take on equally damaging connotations. Similarly, the alliterative impact of “junkies”; and “joke” wields its own power.

In complete contrast to Pale's brutal—yet profoundly honest—outbursts, the other characters in Burn This do not really communicate. Lou Liberatore notes that “Anna is really unable to show her real feelings through language, except perhaps with Larry—when no-one else is in the room.”126 Rather than risk direct communication, Anna prefers on the whole to pepper her conversation with the kind of leaden clichés that can be found in pop songs, soap operas, and movies. Only occasionally is she aware that she is falling into a linguistic rut of the kind she would despise in others.

Having just returned from Robbie's funeral and, as a result, having been unable to exercise, she complains in tones reminiscent of soap opera that she is “completely out of touch with [her] body” (act 1, p. 19). Her reliance on pop psychology emerges when she observes that her sorrow is being wasted by not being sublimated into artistic expression: “… if I were still dancing, I'd probably be brilliant tonight” (act 1, p. 23).

Anna's essential shallowness of expression is thus analyzed by Juliet Stevenson:

Some of the lines Anna has are desperate because they are so tinny … “a crackerjack feeler” for example! “I feel blue”! But of course that's partly what Wilson is writing about … She is just beginning to be aware of using second-rate, plagiarized song titles, instant accessible culture … the world of instant feeling which is very unresonant.127

Even Larry, by far the most articulate and witty of the characters onstage, relies on camp—verbally dexterous homosexual innuendo—to communicate. He hides his real feelings beneath a sardonic, self-deprecating humor and a barely suppressed yawn of hopeless resignation; instances of emotional exposure are rare and are quickly followed by a caustic dismissal.

The language of a successful and wealthy screenwriter of science-fiction blockbuster movies “reminiscent of something like Total Recall128 is no better. Burton's speech, often emotionally immature and contrived, shows little originality, although he is both confident and articulate. However, there are several moments when his speech breaks down. Speaking about his recent trip to Canada, he notes its influence on his writing style: “Amazing things happen to your mind, you feel like you're all alone, or you're one with the … something, or … well …” (act 1, p. 12).

The four characters' contrasting speech patterns afford a rich canvas for Wilson. Pale's vituperative animal ferocity, just occasionally hinting at a submerged finer sensibility; Anna's mostly second-hand yet heartfelt rambling; Larry's razor-sharp, though shallow, wisecracks; Burton's stolid phrasings—all enable the playwright to capture with wit and verisimilitude the conversational styles of contemporary New York.

Burn This is another Wilson play that includes characters whose sexuality is either ambiguous or blatantly nonconformist. Although containing only one openly homosexual character, Larry, the play features people who, while appearing strongly heterosexual, exhibit personality traits at variance with their chosen projected image. The ostensibly macho Pale, for example, has a strongly feminine side in conflict with the urban aggressor he presents to the world.

The homoerotic aura pervading the work continues with Burton, who constantly, though good-humoredly, rebuffs Larry's joky sexual advances and suggestive innuendo. Burton is drawn as a “man's man”: athletic, self-sufficient, and teaching akido at the local YMCA. A well-heeled screenwriter of blockbuster movies, he appears a man in control of his destiny. But one night he temporarily doffs his usual sophisticated, man-about-town image to candidly recall a homosexual episode from his youth when he was fellated in the snow by a passing stranger. As Michael Simkins observes, however, much of Burton's speech is contrived:

He's very fond of what are, in effect, slightly forced anecdotes. He loves to talk about himself and his experiences … and likes to impress upon his audience that “I've lived as well.”129

His happy memory of the incident is thus a little too self-conscious, a little too pat: “It was very nice, and I never thought about it. And it didn't mean anything, but I've never been sorry it happened or any of that crap” (act 2, p. 63). This is not to suggest that Burton may harbor suppressed homosexual longings. More likely, he just wishes to demonstrate to his friends his broad-minded and enlightened attitude.

However, his choice of reminiscence to illustrate these traits is an interesting one. Notwithstanding his “acceptance” of Larry, subtle suggestions exist (not least in his strident, overcompensatory telling of the above anecdote) that Burton may nourish homophobic fears. In spite of his assertions to the contrary, he is perhaps homophobic—the only true homophobe in the play.

Pale may project a superficial homophobia, but it is not borne out in his relationship with Larry. Indeed, the pair share the most domestic scene in the whole play, and, although dismissive of Larry's camp persona, Pale seems able to communicate with him. John Malkovich believes that Pale is not so much homophobic as contemptuous of the New York superficial glitziness and sophisticated swagger so often projected by the likes of Larry. He believes that the play is a veiled comment on the inherent snobbery of New York:

It [New York] is full of quite selfish, mindless, narcissistic bullies and it drives me berserk. … I can just land there and after a few minutes I'm enraged.130

About Pale's contemptuous attitude to Larry, he observes:

What he doesn't like is that Larry is a little too witty and needs to be punched. … there is an almost exquisitely painful provincialism about people who come from the cities as though they were somehow terribly cultured and artistic, which they rarely are … those who live there are supposed to be so cool … they think they are so interesting and superior. This goes for the criminal element, the media element, and the sort of Village Voice element or whatever. For a character like Pale, this sort of thing is just a target.131

By the end, each character has learned something of value. Anna has grown both as an artist and as an individual; having tasted the extremes of experience, she is enriched and, probably, less prone to easy reliance on compromise and concession. In Anna's new-found maturity, Pale has found a match for his ardor and strength of feeling; for the first time, he experiences love and enters a relationship built on genuine emotion rather than on empty sentiment. And possibly, within the confines of a supportive relationship, his own creative impulses can be set free; perhaps his “artistic temperament” can now be channelled into positive and fulfilling directions.

Larry is finally forced to acknowledge the futility and barrenness of his chosen lifestyle; living vicariously through the love affairs of others is deeply unsatisfactory. However, his part in helping Pale and Anna to come together could signal a change for the better; observing the inevitability of their relationship—despite its many problems—might impel him to seek out a partner, even though aware that such a step could be potentially hazardous.

In losing Anna to Pale, Burton has learned that, for her, his attractiveness has been based largely on convenience. He is forced to recognize his limitations and that he and Anna were and never could be a suitable match. What beguiles Anna about Pale is his complete lack of phoniness and pretension—two prominent components of Burton's personality.

Burn This spreads its dramatic reach wide with an ambition, humor, and inventive use of language that place it very firmly at the forefront of Wilson's dramatic canon. Far from being “a wish fulfillment exercise of the hoariest kind,”132 it is one of his most important and vibrant works into which he has incorporated many themes examined in previous plays, but all the while extending them to new depths.


  1. Lanford Wilson, Balm in Gilead and Other Plays, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1965 (Noonday Press edition, 1988), p. 3.

  2. John Beaufort, “Definitive Revival of Lanford Wilson's First Full-Length Play,” The Christian Science Monitor, 18 June 1984, p. 22.

  3. Gene Barnett, Lanford Wilson, quoted in Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series—American Dramatists, vol. 3 (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1989), p. 443.

  4. Robert Brustein, “Post-Naturalist Triumph,” New Republic, 5 November 1984 pp. 27-29.

  5. Beaufort, “Definitive Revival of Lanford Wilson's First Full-Length Play,” p. 22.

  6. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  7. Shewey, “I Hear America Talking,” p. 20.

  8. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Powell, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Kakutani, “I Write the World As I See It Around Me,” pp. 4, 6.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Wilson, Balm in Gilead, p. 3.

  24. Wilson, Balm in Gilead, p. 68.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Ibid, p. 3.

  28. Ibid, p. 9.

  29. Ibid, p. 33.

  30. Ibid, p. 10.

  31. Leslie Bennetts, “Marshall Mason Explores a New Stage,” New York Times, 11 October 1987, p. 7.

  32. Mason, interview with author, 15 September 1991, New York.

  33. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September, 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  34. John Malkovich, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  35. Ibid.

  36. Wilson, Balm in Gilead, p. 5.

  37. Ibid, p. 4.

  38. Ibid, p. 26.

  39. Ibid, p. 7.

  40. Ibid, p. 7.

  41. Ibid, p. 20.

  42. Ibid, p. 41.

  43. Ibid, p. 57.

  44. Ibid, p. 71.

  45. Kakutani, “I Write the World As I See It Around Me,” pp. 4, 6.

  46. Gen. 37:25 and Jer. 8:22.

  47. Hos. 12:11 and 68.

  48. 1 Samuel 13:7.

  49. Beaufort, “Definitive Revival of Lanford Wilson's First Full-Length Play,” p. 22.

  50. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, (London: Virago Press, 1987), p. 314.

  51. Robert Allan Ackerman, interview with author, 3 October 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  52. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  53. Mason, interview with author, 15 September 1991, New York.

  54. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  55. Jack Kroll, Newsweek, cited on back cover of Lanford Wilson, Burn This (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987, Noonday Press edition, 1988).

  56. Malkovich, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  57. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  58. Mason, interview with author, 15 September 1991, New York.

  59. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  60. Malkovich, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  61. Mason, interview with author, 15 September 1991, New York.

  62. Bennetts, “Marshall Mason Explores a New Stage,” p. 3.

  63. Ibid.

  64. Ackerman, interview with author, 3 October 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  65. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  66. Berezin, interview with author, 18 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  67. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  68. “John Malkovich,” Omnibus, BBC2 Television, 7 September 1990.

  69. Ibid.

  70. Ibid.

  71. Ibid.

  72. Ibid.

  73. Milton Shulman, “Dangerous Liaison,” Evening Standard, 30 May 1990, p. 39.

  74. Jack Tinker, “High Wire Magic with No Holds Barred,” Daily Mail, 30 May 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Record, vol. 10, 21 May-3 June 1990, p. 716.

  75. Ackerman, interview with author, 3 October 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  76. Simkins, interview with author, 19 November 1990, Stoke Newington, London.

  77. Omnibus, 7 September 1990.

  78. Kenneth Hurren, “Theatre,” The Mail on Sunday, 3 June 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Record, p. 715.

  79. Irving Wardle, “Shattered Sanctuaries,” The Independent on Sunday, 3 June 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Record, p. 723.

  80. Michael Billington, “A Sweeter Shade of Pale,” The Guardian, 30 May 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Record, p. 717.

  81. Berezin, interview with author, 18 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  82. Mason, interview with author, 15 September 1991, New York.

  83. Ackerman, interview with author, 3 October 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  84. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  85. Ibid.

  86. Juliet Stevenson, interview with author, 1 November 1990, Queen's Park, London.

  87. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  88. Malkovich, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  89. Mason, interview with author, 15 September 1991, New York.

  90. Ibid.

  91. Ackerman, interview with author, 3 October 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  92. Stevenson, interview with author, 1 November 1990, Queen's Park, London.

  93. Ibid.

  94. Ackerman, interview with author, 3 October 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  95. Stevenson, interview with author, 1 November 1990, Queen's Park, London.

  96. Malkovich, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  97. Ibid.

  98. Ibid.

  99. Simkins, interview with author, 19 November 1990, Stoke Newington, London.

  100. Malkovich, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  101. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  102. Stevenson, interview with author, 1 November 1990, Queen's Park, London.

  103. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  104. Billington, “A Sweeter Shade of Pale,” p. 717.

  105. Thomas M. Disch, “Theater,” Nation, 15 November 1987, pp. 569-70.

  106. Charles Osborne, “Like Chekhov on Speed,” The Daily Telegraph, 31 May 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Review, p. 723.

  107. Paul Taylor, “Creative Blocks,” The Independent, 31 May 1990, p. 12.

  108. Maureen Paton, “Burn This,” The Daily Express, 4 June 1990.

  109. Sheridan Morley, Herald Tribune, 6 June 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Review, p. 715.

  110. Ackerman, interview with author, 3 October 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  111. Rhoda Koenig, Punch, 8 June 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Review, p. 716.

  112. Martin Hoyle, Financial Times, 30 May 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Review, p. 717.

  113. Clive Hirschorn, The Sunday Express, 3 June 1990, reprinted in London Theatre Review, p. 717.

  114. Jim Hiley, The Listener, 7 June 1990, p. 32.

  115. Mel Gussow, “Lanford Wilson's Lonely World of Displaced Persons,” New York Times, 15 October 1987, p. 5.

  116. Ibid.

  117. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  118. Stevenson, interview with author, 1 November 1990, Queen's Park, London.

  119. Mason, interview with author, 15 September 1991, New York.

  120. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  121. Michael Coveney, “Burn These Wigs,” The Observer, 5 June 1990, p. 58.

  122. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  123. Gussow, “Talley's Folly: A Valentine Hit,” p. 36.

  124. Wilson, interview with author, 14 September 1991, Circle Repertory Company, New York.

  125. David Mamet, American Buffalo, (London: Methuen, 1978), p. 104.

  126. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  127. Stevenson, interview with author, 1 November 1990, Queen's Park, London.

  128. Liberatore, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

  129. Simkins, interview with author, 19 November 1990, Stoke Newington, London.

  130. Edwardes, “Beyond the Pale,” p. 15.

  131. Malkovich, interview with author, 27 September 1990, Lyric Theatre, London.

  132. Hiley, The Listener, p. 32.

James J. Martine (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10277

SOURCE: Martine, James J. “Charlotte's Daughters: Changing Gender Roles and Family Structures in Lanford Wilson.” In Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 37-63. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

[In the following essay, Martine investigates the evolving role of women in Wilson's plays.]

There is no inconsistency in the fact that serious and important writers can be placed in a literary tradition while the contribution of their artistic originality is applauded. It is possible to appreciate Lanford Wilson's literary affinity to Luigi Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in matters of form; his relation thematically to William Faulkner and John Steinbeck as a confirmed humanist; an added indebtedness to Williams; and acknowledge concerns leading eventually back to Henrik Ibsen.

Audiences of several of Wilson's plays recognize, for example, the influence of the more celebrated playwrights in his use of the engaged narrator—some more engaged, or engaging, than others: Alan in Lemon Sky; Matt Friedman of Talley's Folly; and Timmy Talley in Talley & Son who is a synthesis of both the Stage Manager and Emily from Our Town (1938) which was on stage when Wilson was one year old. An examination of the autobiographical aspects of Lemon Sky, and perhaps other Wilson plays, must await another and different essay. The play's theatrical techniques, however, in which characters move down halls and into rooms yet at other times cut across the entire stage paying no heed to room “divisions” are reminiscent of Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). If the temptation is to see in Wilson's engaged narrator a character like Alfieri in Miller's A View from the Bridge (1955), one is better advised, in an attempt to understand the perspective of Lemon Sky, to recall Williams's The Glass Menagerie (1945) in which the play is Tom Wingfield's memory or that Miller's approach in Death of a Salesman (1949) may be summed up in the play's draft title “The Inside of His Head.” Lemon Sky is such a memory play.

None of this is to suggest that Wilson's work is derivative. It is, for the most part, not. His relationship to other world-celebrated writers properly places him in a context of themes and techniques that have attracted other first-rate minds. In the end, perhaps, the bromide remains valid: an author does not choose his topics, they choose him. This may apply to Lanford Wilson, and all of us. Yet it is not comparisons here which are most interesting, but contrasts. As Wilson is of the great modern dramatic traditions, he is unique. If he has taken from the pool of themes and techniques, he has contributed to it in that his major work may be seen as a watershed in its engagement of the applicability of age-old questions of the heart and mind to provide a record of new challenges and changing roles, especially for modern women. It may be that, as reflected in Wilson's plays, people fundamentally have not changed much in their needs and aspirations, but their relationships and roles have changed. Since World War II, the ways we relate to one another in a family—and out—have changed, and the role of women especially has evolved precipitously.

Lemon Sky (1970) is one man's recollections of his search for a functioning traditional family. This play concerns an especially contemporary American family: a second wife; two “wards of the state” who are living with a family which takes their $60 per month; two young stepbrothers of Alan, an engaged narrator; and Douglas, a loathsome, repellent and repulsive father figure. Alan may conclude that “we're all of us selfish” (52), but none are quite so selfish as Douglas or Ronnie, his wife, who puts up with Douglas's philandering and wandering eye (and hands) because “I have two kids to think about” (57). Alan is not one of those kids. He is the son of Douglas but he is not Ronnie's son. Alan recalls having come to California in his need for a functioning family unit and discovering there really isn't one. His search for a father turns up a lecher. There's no further west to go, young man. America ends in California.

A brief examination of the purposes of the techniques used in the play may be informative. Characters cross boundary lines and they cross “times” as well. They can converse of the past as in the present. There is a double sense of time which suggests that Alan, the engaged narrator, does more than provide exposition, but that he has the entire play, like Willy Loman, inside his head. So Alan continually cries out for what once was and is gone. As he walks off at the play's final curtain, Alan cries out, “LIGHTS!,” yet everyone in the play follows after him “before Alan can escape them”; (68)—which are the play's final words. Thus the repetition of the lines which open the play in the play's concluding scene suggests the entire play is to be seen as having taken place in Alan's mind:

Hugged me, by God. By God you can't—
Pleased to meet you, I've heard a lot about you.
No matter what anybody anywhere says, you can't separate a kid from his father.


Moreover, it is Carol, the seventeen-year-old ward of the state living with Douglas's family, who continually reminds the audience that it is a play they are witnessing: “Nothing but big cars in this play” (37). After slinging a cigarette all the way off into the wings, Carol explodes: “I hope it burns down the theatre” (43). The “characters” all float in and out of the play. When they drift too far from the subject, one of the “actors” must call them back as when Penny, the other ward of the state, reminds them “Weren't we doing a play a while back?” (44) Carol again and again in Act Three insists that she is, she exists, only in the theatre, but she provides a history, a reality for herself beyond the theatre. Yet she always serves to remind the audience that this is a “story.” One must make out the theatrical function of all the asides to the audience. Because Alan and the play project forward in time, and within that play Carol can further violate an established sense of reality, the audience's interest is focused not upon what happens but why. Moreover, the asides blur the demarcation between illusion and reality throughout. These are, after all, actors playing actors in what is effectively a play within a play, and as they drop “roles” the audience is tempted to forget that they are in roles still. It further heightens the blurring of illusion and reality. Here technique serves theme perfectly in a play set in California about an American family, which is what Alan seeks and which is, finally, an illusion.

There are a number of curious aspects to Lemon Sky, not the least of which is the title. A great deal is made of color in the play in which “… as many scenes as possible are bathed in bright cloudless sunlight” (4). The stage directions insist “There is no green in set or costume … nothing green” (4). This suggests that the audience is to see no hope, no possibility of fruition or regeneration. Moreover, Carol comments that “the color green does not occur in California naturally” (43) which restates and amplifies the intention of the earlier stage directions. Alan addresses the audience directly about California and Californians: “They're insane—well, you've seen the movies they make out here, they have no idea at all what people are like—well, it's not their fault; they've got nothing to go on—they're working in the dark” (32-33). This is more than an enterprising playwright making sport of the dream factory in a play which is to have its first production in Buffalo, New York, for this image of darkness is pressed even further. While Act One ends with the family's smiles at riding out an earth tremor as though it were a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland, it is fire, “something that the Californians do fear” (58), that opens Act Three, a far more serious act. Alan's opening address to the audience at the beginning of this final act is drawn in red and black, the red of fire and the black of ashes. He describes the California landscape in terms reminiscent of a wasteland: “… ashes six inches deep” (58). Wilson's literary figure is not lost on his audience. There is little hope for any of the play's characters: Carol will become a violent “highway statistic” (59) and Alan, the controlling consciousness, will never be rid of his continual “incredible headache” because those he cries out for—“Where are they! Penny! Carol! Jerry! Jack!” (16)—are all gone, except as each member of the family is inside his head inextricably intertwined in his memory. Gone is the word which characterizes the most pervasive mood of the play.

For all of the somber colors and moods in the play, however, Wilson chooses Lemon Sky as his title. His stage directions are very explicit: the play's setting is “against a broad expanse of sky (which is never yellow)” (4). The lemon then is not to be taken as suggestive of light or brightness, nor even of the color yellow. Lemon is presented not as a color but in its suggestion of bitterness. Even in its slang connotation, a “lemon” is something or someone undesirable or inadequate, which is what Alan discovers in pursuing his horizons, the sky, in California, the land of sour fruit.

Lemon Sky celebrates an autobiographical reunion in San Diego with a father from whom he had been separated since his parents' divorce when Wilson was five years old; the recreation in art is a bitter memory, if not for Wilson, then certainly for Alan, his protagonist. The interaction of character, actor and audience striving for the illusion of life on the stage, a technique redolent of Pirandello, is perfectly appropriate for this bitter Lemon Sky which insists on its own existence as an illusion. Alan, the youthful American “hero” who has gone west in search of his American dream, has discovered that there is no further west to go. As Nathanael West had suggested in The Day of the Locust (1939), the American dream had ended. It is illusion. As Alan informs his audience in a direct address:

It's beautiful. It is. I always wanted a big old family like this, it's just great. And it's not going to last. …


The manner of the play is perfect for its matter. The play, insisting on itself as an illusion, presents the dream of “a big old family” as an illusion. Alan's need for a family and the fact that there really isn't one is demonstrated throughout. Alan's reiterated line “what am I supposed to do?” (67) articulates the dilemma for someone who wants a family, and a father, when there are none. The play's penultimate tableau is a sharp picture of the fragmented family:

Douglas and Alan are very far apart. Jack beside Alan, Douglas by Ronnie, Jerry alone outside. Penny and Carol together near their room.


An Act Three exchange between Alan and Douglas stresses Wilson's point that this family is not atypical but to be seen as symbolic of the average American family. Alan, nearly crying, accepts that this family is “quite normal” (60) and Douglas's “just ordinary” (60) is not self-delusion, but Wilson's commentary on the new character of the contemporary American family. Wilson's next major play will show the development of a new unit to replace the “big old family,” and that play will be far less bitter. It will, in fact, be delicious and will win the New York Critics Circle Award as the Best American Play of 1972-73.

The Hot l Baltimore (1973), quite unlike Lemon Sky, observes unity of time, place and action. In fact, here Wilson, while his stage directions call for “music popular during production”; (xiv), carefully structures his drama by using the techniques of opera. Wilson did, of course, provide the libretto to Lee Hoiby's music for an opera version of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke which opened at Lincoln Center in March of 1972. Hot l [The Hot l Baltimore] composed of duets and double duets, and the grand ensemble with Jamie stunned by the naked Suzy and everybody laughing which ends Act One is opera buffa and gives the curtain of the initial act the “upbeat”; and “positive”; conclusion which Wilson wants (xiv). He even describes his dramatis personae as baritone, tenor, mezzo and so forth. As Wilson likes to set some of his dramas on national holidays, Hot l's setting is a “recent Memorial Day”; (xiv). The world of the Hotel Baltimore is one in which “you got to be crazy even to do anything good” (122). It is a cynical, sardonic, down-at-the-heels, hard world, but “share” (128) and “sharing” (130) are the words which best sum up the theme of this play.

As in Lemon Sky, the principal concern is human, indeed familial, relationships. The engine of the play is called simply Girl, a call girl who at age nineteen has found reasons to reject the associations of a surname and uses different given names weekly: Billy Jean, Lilac Lavender, Martha (which may or may not be her real name). Bill Lewis, the night clerk, cares for Girl, but cannot communicate his feelings for her. A telephone “call” for this call girl precipitates a scene in which Bill and Girl punish each other: Girl says, “Would you stop being a daddy to me” (55). Ignoring Bill's responses, she then concludes:

One minute you're friendly and nice and the next minute you're … as bad as my own daddy. Worse. Because he at least didn't care what I did. He didn't even care if I was a hooker as long as I kept him in enough money to buy beer. That's why I left, only you're worse than he is.


Her daddy may not care; Bill, who is only thirty years old, does care but cannot express it; but if there is one thing Girl does and can do, it is care and express her care. In Girl's relationship with her “daddy” there is an odd similarity to the situation of Carol who is accused of being a whore by Douglas, the failed father in Lemon Sky. Carol is promiscuous if not a pro like Girl. April Green, the large and pragmatic prostitute of Hot l, like Carol in Lemon Sky, has a wry, satirical and earthy comic sense, only April is far funnier than Carol and a more interesting character. One of her bons mots deserves special attention. It is April who says, “If my clientele represents a cross-section of American manhood, the country's in trouble” (108). In point of fact, generally speaking, if Lanford Wilson's male characters represent a cross-section of American manhood, the country is in trouble. In his major plays, it is Wilson's women who are more effective both as characters and as functioning people. It seems no coincidence that Girl and April are the most thoroughly likable characters in this play. Douglas, in Lemon Sky, by contrast, is all libido, who, to cover his own guilt for fumbling Penny, accuses Penny's boyfriend Phil of being “queer” and damns his son Alan as a “homosexual” (Lemon Sky 64). Many of Wilson's most effective males are, in fact, homosexual: Alan; Ken and Jed in Fifth of July; Larry in Burn This among them. It is almost always Wilson's women who are the voice of hope and regeneration. It is the women of Hot l who take the leadership roles; they are the most active persons in the pursuit of establishing a purpose in life and a new, functioning family unit.

There are several examples of malfunctioning families in Hot l in addition to Girl and her tale of her father. In Act Two, the audience learns that Paul Granger III has come to the Hotel Baltimore searching for his grandfather who was rejected by his parents: “He wanted to come live with Mom and Dad, and they wrote him they didn't have room for him. They didn't want him” (94). Paul, who has never met his grandfather, now says, “I want him! I have room for him!” (95) Paul, like Alan in Lemon Sky, wants to restore what he can of his fragmented family. In Paul's case, it is his grandfather, but like Alan, it is all too late; it is, like Paul's grandfather, gone.

The character of Jackie, age 24, with her name written on the back of her denim jacket, despite the fact that “her manner, voice, and stance are those of a young stevedore” (xii), wants nothing so much as to proceed to twenty acres of land she has purchased (having heard about it on the radio) in Utah and establish a “family” life there with her nineteen-year-old browbeaten brother Jamie. Jackie wants to raise organic garlic on land that in truth won't grow cactus. Neither Paul nor Jackie will get what they desire.

It is Girl, who never wants to hurt anybody, who inadvertently kills Jackie's dream (102-03), and Act Two ends with Girl pursuing Jackie in an attempt to make up for the hurt in the destruction of the dream. Jackie knows “instinctively” that she has been foolish to purchase land she has not seen but only heard advertised on the radio. Her “dream” is a misinformed illusion which can come to no good end. Jackie abandons her brother Jamie, and Paul abandons his search for his grandfather. Paul just gives up the search; however, it is now important to Girl that Paul find his grandfather or at least continue the search for him. Girl says, “I like getting involved” (139) in the face of Bill's wisdom that “you can't help people who don't want it” (139). It is the male voice that is hard and pragmatic, non-involved and finally selfish. Audiences will hear this male voice again in John Landis of Fifth of July and the trio of Mr. Talley, Eldon and Harley Campbell in Talley & Son. It is the female voice that is hopeful, that insists on “getting involved.”

Many of the characters in Lemon Sky and The Hot l Baltimore are portrayed as having a need for a sense of family in an essentially rootless, shifting contemporary American society. When another prostitute who has been a denizen of the Hotel Baltimore, Suzy, moves out of the hotel to move in with one other girl and a black pimp, “Billy Goldhole,” she, “super-emotional,”; bursts back in and says, “We been like a family, haven't we? My family” (136).

Why doesn't the center hold? Why is everything being destroyed? Girl speaks Wilson's indictment: “That's why nothing gets done; why everything falls down. Nobody's got the conviction to act on their passions” (140). Girl does. One of her passions is trains, and she sends the “front office a telegram of congratulations—I honestly did” (124) when the Continental comes through on time. She likes things orderly and on time; moreover, she likes getting involved and she does in Paul's search for a grandfather, even when Paul, disillusioned, gives up and quits his search. Girl is no exceptional romantic. It is she who points out the reality of the condition of the Utah land to Jamie (120-21), not maliciously to disillusion him but to help him. As for Paul's abandoning his search and Jackie's abandonment of Jamie, Girl again seems to speak for Wilson: “I don't think it matters what someone believes in. I just think it's really chicken not to believe in anything!” (141)

She is more than the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold. She is the voice of hope (much like Steinbeck's Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) who insists on being “involved.” Whether she is successful in her attempts does not matter. In the world portrayed by Lanford Wilson, the attempts themselves are important. Even if no one makes it (Suzy's “escape” from the Hot l Baltimore may be into exactly what April and Girl suggest, a situation even worse), it is the effort that is important, the attempt, the involvement. April, who knows that Bill “aches” for Girl but will not pursue her, drives home the point when she says to him: “Bill, baby, you know what your trouble is? … You've not got the conviction of your passions” (142).

This is the world of the Hotel Baltimore; it is contemporary society and “the bulldozers are barking at the door” (145). It seems all about to come tumbling down unless someone somewhere keeps the “conviction of passions.” Is it just the Hotel Baltimore? Is it just Baltimore? Trying to answer that would be like trying to ascertain the present location and identity of Twain's Hadleyburg. Notice the following exchange:

Baltimore used to be one of the most beautiful cities in America.
Every city in America used to be one of the most beautiful cities in America.


April's comic, and true, observation is more than an expression of contemporary cynicism. It is an indication that Wilson uses Baltimore and the Hot l Baltimore as a symbol for every city, every town. Perhaps too many people are too self-consumed and in too big a hurry. As Suzy says as she exits, “the whole fuckin' country is double parked” (134-35).

The final scene of the play suggests that from the ashes of the disintegration of old units of relationships a phoenix of a different sort arises. Bill, Millie, Girl and April now will adopt Jamie into their family unit—the larger unit of mankind. April expresses her concern for Jamie. Has he had anything to eat? Then, keeping her hope, she brings Jamie into the group by dancing with him: “Come on; you're so shy, if someone doesn't put a light under your tail, you're not going to have passions to need convictions for” (144). This is not sexual innuendo. When Jamie says that he doesn't know how to join in the dance, April insists, “Nobody knows how. What does it matter; the important thing is to move. Come on” (145). The dance is the dance of life. No one really knows how to do it; the important thing is to do it, live it. Why? Because “they're gonna tear up the dance floor in a minute; the bulldozers are barking at the door” (145). Hot l is, in some ways, a modern call to carpe diem.

Mr. Morse, the grandfather figure adopted much earlier in the play into the family of the Hot l Baltimore, has not, in the play's conclusion, touched the celebratory champagne Suzy has provided. He blurts out, “Paul Granger is an old fool! … He's an old fool” (143). Both Paul Grangers are fools—grandfather and grandson—the grandfather for making it difficult if not impossible for his grandson to find him, and the grandson for “giving up” the search for the father figure in his grandfather.

Morse, his wife long dead, settles into his new “family” which consists of Bill Lewis, Girl, April and Millie and is now a “grandfather” to Jamie who has been abandoned by his sister Jackie. If the old family unit malfunctions, a new unit is formed. Steinbeck expended an entire novel so that Ma Joad could learn that it used to be that the “fambly” was first. It “ain't” so now. It's anybody. This is called, in the cliché, the family of man. And like Steinbeck's characters, it is misnamed, for it is womankind who are the repository of hope, of endurance. Now, finally, in the last lines of The Hot l Baltimore, Mr. Morse “sips the drink and watches on”; (145), as April shows Jamie how to survive in the dance. Like the conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath, the important thing is not where they are going. “The important thing is to move” (145), to live, to believe in something, to keep the conviction to act on passions (140-41). Because people are like Suzy who needs love (133), they must, like Girl, get “involved” (139).

There are several points to note that make Hot l a far more hopeful, optimistic and comic experience than Lemon Sky. Wilson's bulldozers at the door bark on several levels. It is not just a philosophical expression encouraging people to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow they die but a reminder that American society is changing. The important thing is to move, not out and away, but into the dance. Wilson's voice here asks to keep belief and to stay involved. Moreover, one notes the detached, cynical and dysfunctioning men. The women can be aware, alert and cautiously caustic yet remain hopeful, hopefilled and potent. Wilson's men? If this “represents a cross section of American manhood, the country's in trouble” (108). Wilson, like Steinbeck before him, observes the formation of the new family unit in contemporary American society. It doesn't look like the Victorian family. Then again, Wilson is not describing Victorian times.

Why is it the “e” that is missing in the Hot l Baltimore? Of course, it suggests the sleazy quality of a neon sign with a non-functioning part outside a seedy flophouse—that used to be a grand place—with some sexually hot residents. Is there anything else in that missing “e?” Steinbeck makes a good deal in Grapes about the movement from “I” to “We.” Is this the “e” that Wilson suggests is missing in “every city in America?” As Lemon Sky is a curious, brooding and troubling play, The Hot l Baltimore is the positive and upbeat song of a confirmed humanist.

Wilson has been concerned with the dysfunctional family unit and the changing role of women in Lemon Sky and Hot l; these elements will provide the thematic mainsprings for the plays of the Talley cycle: 5th of July (1978; revised version, Fifth of July [1982]), Talley's Folly (1979) and Talley & Son (1985). All three plays are set on the Talley Place, a farm near Lebanon, Missouri. That they are set, wholly or in part, on Independence Day, in 1977 for the first play and in 1944 for the latter two, seems hardly a coincidence.

While the comic elements in Hot l are natural and organic, attempts at humor in Fifth of July seem strained and reached-for. Take for example this exchange involving June Talley, Sally Talley Friedman and Ken Talley:

I think that and Mahler are in a class by themselves.
He loved swimming naked.
Mahler? Loved swimming naked?
Your Uncle Matt, darling.


Or consider this brief exchange between Jed, Ken's lover, and Aunt Sally:

And no botanist has ever known anything at all about gardening, or there wouldn't be mildew on the phlox.
Mildew on the phlox … What's the name of that novel?


Neither the herb nor the George Eliot joke are organic here.

Early in the first act the audience becomes aware that Fifth of July is something different from Lemon Sky or Hot l. In 1974, Wilson collaborated with Tennessee Williams on a television filmscript for The Migrants which was nominated for an Emmy. Actually, Williams gave Wilson a story outline in 1973 and the credits for the Playhouse 90 drama acknowledge a teleplay by Lanford Wilson, suggested by a story by Tennessee Williams. Fifth of July seems to be written under the sway of Williams's influence. The play is loaded with eccentric, down-home dramatis personae who are “characters” and the drama is laden with “curiosities”—an overly dramatic fourteen year old smoking cigarettes with a cigarette-holder who climbs trees to witness a cunnilingus-masturbation scene (21); an apparently eccentric widowed “Aunt Sally” who carries her husband's ashes with her for a year, uses them to dry roses (23) and occasionally stores the ashes in the refrigerator (27); and a crippled Vietnam veteran, Ken Talley, and his lover, Jed Jenkins. It all begins to look like Tennessee Williams—bad Williams. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not when it is bad imitation and seems to lead a younger writer away from his own genius.

Fifth of July's Act One curtain, with Jed picking up his crippled lover Ken—who has lost both legs in the Vietnam War—and carrying him up to bed is supposed to be moving, but, curiously, it is not. This might have been a powerful curtain but it isn't. There is no felt life here; the characters remain curiosa, curiosities for whom the audience senses they are being manipulated to feel … yet don't. There are some interesting moments and some funny lines, but no play. Even as a let's-get-together-ten-years-after-Berkeley-and-the-1960's exercise, this is just adequate. The physical damage (Ken) and the disillusionment (Gwen and June) subsequent to Vietnam are present; this is, after all, the fifth of July, the time after the major national event, and Wilson has a fecund title.

Much of the play is mired in a slough of facetiae. Sexual variants abound: Ken and Jed now; John and Gwen now; Ken and Gwen and John and June then; even, as children, John and Ken and June (57); and Ken in love with John (then)—quite a sexual mélange. John Landis is the newly constituted capitalist who keeps his spacey, ding-dong wife Gwen away from the companies she owns so he can run things; she is not “blind” (73). She's “gotta have John” (73). He, after all, performs “cunnilingus all over her and his face was all over mucus” while he masturbates (21).

Well, all's well that ends well and in the play's final scene (68-75) everything rushes together satisfactorily: Ken does not sell the Talley place and property and he will prepare to face the high school students as a teacher in the fall; Gwen will get a genuine singing career despite John's manipulative efforts and we're told (not shown) “she's really good” (73); Shirley, “the last of the Talleys” (75), will remain with her mother despite the threats of John who is sure he is Shirley's father; Aunt Sally will not go to California but remain on the Talley place; she and Jed have finally scattered the ashes of Matt “all over the rose garden” (70) to help things grow. No longer are the ashes of Matt Friedman to be used to desiccate roses, but as fertile matter to help them grow. Yet, as in Lemon Sky and more especially Hot l, a new and peculiar “family” unit is restored: Ken and Jed, Aunt Sally and Shirley and June. They will all live apparently happily ever after. Or as Ilya, the character played by Melina Mercouri in Jules Dassin's film Pote Tin Kyriaki (Never on Sunday), concludes after her viewing of Medea: they all went to the seashore.

The audience finally may be tempted to identify with Ken Talley in his reaction to the absurdity of the conversation about slugs: “Does anyone have something I could open a vein with?” (61) As the pieces of the Talley cycle fall into place, however, Aunt Sally and Matt Friedman, whose ashes will help things grow, will be of far more central importance than might appear here. For that, the audience will have to come forward one year in their time to 1979 and go back thirty-three years in Talley time from Fifth of July to the Fourth of July of 1944 on the Talley place for the events of both Talley's Folly and Talley & Son.

Set in an old boathouse called “Talley's Folly,” an excessively romantic structure, a “genuine Victorian folly. … Constructed of louvers and lattice and geegaws” (4), which was built in 1870 by “Uncle Whistler,” Everett Talley, Talley's Folly, this two-character drama played without intermission, opens with a monologue by the engaged narrator directed to the audience as in Lemon Sky. But this piece delivered by the same Matt Friedman whose ashes some thirty-three years later eventually decorate the roses in Jed's garden in Fifth of July is of greater uninterrupted length (3-6) than anything written for Alan in Lemon Sky. As Lanford Wilson is roundly praised by critics for his realistic and naturalistic dialogue (a good ear is an important appendage for a playwright), the small cost is that often in lengthy soliloquies the realistic lacks poetry. The advance here is that Wilson gives Matt Friedman language that is appropriate to his character yet is a full cut above the colloquial or prosaic. There is poetry here, and Matt is a more persuasive and charming interlocutor.

Again it is a musical figure which best serves to identify the play. As Lemon Sky is a fugue and Hot l is an opera buffa, this play is, as Matt insists several times, a waltz. Informed by more than the waltz or the level of diction, at once both realistic and poetic, Talley's Folly is a mature play with two real, likable characters. There is felt life, and the wit of Matt Friedman and the humor of the play are warm and human, not forced and stilted like much of Fifth of July.

The plot is simple, but America has a fresh Romeo and Juliet—a 42-year-old Jewish Romeo and a 31-year-old radical Midwestern Juliet from a Methodist family. Matt and Sally will live happily ever after for three decades. How they got that way makes a remarkable play. With only two characters, there is believable life here, two people an audience will like and care about. This is the stuff of which Pulitzer Prizes are made. Talley's Folly received its Pulitzer in 1980.

Matt is a wonderful storyteller; he tells tales to Sally to win her, and they are good stories. Even if they are tragic and may be true, they remain winning stories. In the play's lovely sotto voce ending, Matt has won his Sally Talley; they kiss and, finally, sit “perfectly relaxed” (60); then Matt says, “and so, all's well that ends … (Takes out his watch, shows time to SALLY, then to audience) … right on the button …” (60).

As Matt, whose wondrous abilities have won Sally, has promised the audience in the play's opening line, it has been “ninety-seven minutes here tonight—without intermission” (3). Matt has won Sally by telling her jokes and stories. At the same time … in the same time … he has presented a lovely, moving romantic waltz for the audience. And he has won them as well. At that same time, however, the ominous events of Talley & Son are occurring. It would be a mistake to underestimate a play because of its charm. Talley's Folly is, in the context of the Talley trilogy, about one woman's escape from an oppressive paternalistic family, and it comes exactly one hundred years after Nora slams the door on A Doll's House (1879). Sally will leave in Talley & Son. She will not slam the door, but she will leave. Since Sally is the only character to appear in all the Talley plays, the & Son in the title of the last drama in the cycle is powerfully ironic, and she is far more significant than has been heretofore acknowledged.

An early draft of Talley & Son, then called A Tale Told, was presented during the Circle Repertory Company's 1980-81 season. In both versions, once again as in Lemon Sky and Talley's Folly, Wilson's tale is told by a narrator. This time it is Timmy Talley, who has just been killed in World War II. Timmy, like Alan and Matt, addresses the audience and provides exposition and asides, yet unlike them he does not interact with the play's other characters except through an extraordinary human empathy with Sally but most especially with Aunt Charlotte Talley, called Lottie in the play, at the play's conclusion. Even then he seems to speak Lottie's mind and through Lottie's character.

In Talley & Son, Wilson adds another impressive theatrical weapon to his panoply of dramatic tools, this time a Rashomon effect which Alan Ayckbourn had used so brilliantly in The Norman Conquests (1973), three plays which represent the same characters, events and instant in time seen from different places in the house and garden. Ayckbourn's accomplishment is duplicated by Wilson if with less comic intent. Talley's Folly and Talley & Son are indigenous entities that are perfectly satisfying if seen separately. Yet since they occur at the same instant in time, taken together each sheds new lights on the other and creates a third, even richer, tapestry.

Aunt Charlotte, Lottie, is a fiercely independent person; she encourages Matt to continue his relationship with Sally who will be like her aunt in being not just liberal but radical. Lottie and Sally are the independent ones in the family in these plays set on the Fourth of July, and Talley's Folly is about, among other things, how Sally, who only appears briefly in Talley & Son, finally became “independent.” There are many references in Talley's Folly that make it clear that Aunt Charlotte is the one who encourages Matt's pursuit of Sally (see pp. 9, 31-32, 50-51, 52). Aunt Charlotte has become great friends with Matt, and when we eventually meet her in Talley & Son, Lottie smokes and curses at a time when “ladies” like Olive, Buddy's wife, think it inappropriate for men to smoke in the house or curse in the presence of women. Olive, in calling her father-in-law, Eldon, “Dad” and her mother-in-law, Netta, “Mom” and “Mother,” is trying to hold an old sort of family unit together. Olive is a throwback to Victorian times: annoyingly obsequious, in the way in the kitchen but in the kitchen nonetheless, and a desirous, if not desired, bed partner. Olive almost always exits to the kitchen or up to the bedroom. She acts the traditional female roles—in the kitchen, concerned with feeding “you men” (83)—and she talks in accepted stereotypical “female” fashion: she says to Lottie, “you're going to go straight to H-E-double-toothpicks” (84). Lottie, shackled by no such delicacy required in a lady's avoidance of the vulgar, responds as a male might: “Oh, kiss my ass” (84). Olive, who will make a concession to progress in Leclede County by wearing slacks (33), would never think of wearing them when her husband Buddy comes home. Women do not wear the pants in this family—at least not Olive's conception of the family.

The patriarch, Calvin Stuart Talley, whose circumstances and actions may remind some of Big Daddy in Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), is dying, and a way of life will die with him. This good Methodist family will not allow inappropriate behavior for a woman—no smoking, drinking or cursing. Sally must surreptitiously go down to the boathouse as she does in Talley's Folly to sneak her cigarette and nip of gin. And none of the men would think of allowing a Jew to court a Talley family member. The anti-Semitism of the men (Eldon, Buddy and Harley Campbell) is blatant. It is the independence day for two women, Aunt Charlotte and Sally, that will allow for Sally's growth to happiness in marrying Matt Friedman. Sally (who is, recall, Aunt Sally in Fifth of July) is Aunt Charlotte's spiritual offspring—the independent, radical woman who escapes the decaying order of the Talley decline.

Charlotte never marries, but her spiritual child is Sally. Sally can never have children and Matt doesn't want them, but in Fifth of July, it is Shirley who says that not John and June, but Matt and “Aunt Sally” are the only real parents she has ever had. Sally has raised Shirley, and she will go on to be a great artist (or scientist, or whatever). In many of Wilson's major plays we see the disintegration of a dysfunctional family unit tied by blood, to be replaced by a new sort of family unit, one formed by selection, election and a shade of chance. Only in the declaration of independence from some kinds of blood ties could women be prepared to be the center of the new “family” unit. It may be why the audience of Wilson's plays has a slim sense of Steinbeck's Ma Joad (Grapes) as a new “fambly” structure develops. Wilson's men die or are wounded, and the women remain memorable. The men are the narrators, Alan, Matt and Timmy, but the strong characters are the women, like April and Girl in Hot l or Lottie and Sally in Talley's Folly and Talley & Son.

Some critics see the power of Talley & Son in the relationship of fathers and sons and that may in part be so, but it overlooks too much, especially the role of Wilson's women. Both Sally and Lottie are college-educated, independent women, and Sally, Lottie and Shirley have more in common than the fact that all three smoke cigarettes. The Talley cycle is about many things, and the individual plays are of varying merit, but the one consistent factor is Sally Talley Friedman who alone appears in all three plays. Lottie is an independent, college-educated woman who never marries, a life-long spinster. Her spiritual progeny is Sally, the radical, college-educated woman of the next generation of Talley women who has no natural children but raises Shirley of Fifth of July who believes, at age fourteen, that she can and will have it all. Both Sally and Lottie make it clear that they would not have returned to their individual father's home—Sally to Eldon Talley's—“I'm as eager to leave as they are eager to get rid of me” (Talley's Folly 26)—or Lottie to Calvin Stuart Talley's—“if there'd been another place to go” (Talley & Son 39).

It is in a consideration of all three women of the Talley cycle that we see two major themes come together: the changing nature of the American family and the evolution of the role of women and its part in that change. If the movement from Charlotte, the spiritual mother, through Sally to Shirley seems an incomplete matter, that may be because America has not yet written a conclusion to the evolving role of its women. One thing is certain, however. The culture will be quite different. Sally is committed to making the world a better place, and Lottie's concern is with the welfare of her fellow human beings (Talley & Son 39, 46). She has little concern with material “things” or with the male pursuits of wealth and power. Eldon Talley would leave everything to the sons Buddy and Timmy, who, as the audience knows, has already been killed, and nothing to his daughter Sally (49); Buddy, Sally's brother, agrees. Wilson's women are excluded from male obsessions.

The only thing a woman is good for according to the men in the Talley family is to have children, and because tuberculosis has descended to Sally's fallopian tubes she can have no children; that is what broke up the engagement between Sally and Harley Campbell (Talley's Folly 58). A woman who cannot bear children would be no good in a match between two rich and powerful patriarchal families. It is the modern man, Matt Friedman, who loves the woman because she is like him. She's a worthy mate. The woman's child-bearing is unimportant. She is his equal. It's a match. In these plays set on Independence Day, it is only certain women who are independent. The Talleys have, as Eldon says, “got to have one in every generation” (Talley & Son 49), and Lottie has influenced “that girl [Sally] since the day she was born” (Talley & Son 49), as Sally, in her turn, will be the major influence in raising Shirley.

The women are far more admirable human beings than the men portrayed here. Harley Campbell, for example, has little humanity or social concern, especially for women, in sharp contrast with Lottie and Sally. Harley would sell the firm of Talley & Son, in which he is a business partner, to the Delaware conglomerate. He has no concern for the workers or what would happen if Talley & Son were to close: “Divorced women, unmarried mothers. The town would be better off without them” (55). Calvin Stuart “Granddaddy” Talley agrees about the women who work in the mill: “Moral corruption. Never trusted those women. Broken homes and moral weakness” (55). Moral corruption? Moral weakness? At the curtain of Act One, Avalaine Platt arrives, claiming to be Eldon Talley's illegitimate daughter; almost at the same moment the news arrives of Timmy's death. It is the arrival of an unwanted daughter and the death of a son for whom all the dreams were held which concludes Act One. Buddy Talley apparently has several times tried to seduce Avalaine who is the illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter of his father Eldon, who brusquely dismisses Avalaine as he had dismissed her mother Viola earlier in the play. Buddy, who throughout Act One has avoided sex with his wife Olive, is moved to go upstairs with her only by the thought of begetting a son.

Women are clearly second-class citizens and good only to provide sons—in a play about Talley and son. It is grandsons who “mean more to” Granddaddy Talley “than almost anything” (70). Sally, who is at this moment down in the boathouse (Talley's Folly) with Matt, has been forgotten by everyone. Timmy is, after all, Sally's brother, and she is the grandchild of Talley, whose concern is with grandsons. Just Lottie and Netta even think of her, and Netta does because Sally is “so strong” (72). Netta's concern for Eldon at the loss of his son is because “he's not resilient like we are” (71). Since she speaks this line to her daughter-in-law Olive, someone she does not especially like, the “we” must mean women. Lanford Wilson's women—like Steinbeck's women—are, in fact, more resilient than Lanford Wilson's men. Moreover, Lottie, like April in Hot l, has vision and wit in addition to her concern for the well-being of her fellow humans. It is noteworthy that Carol in Lemon Sky, April in Hot l and Lottie have the readiest wit in each play. Among the men, only Ken, a legless homosexual in Fifth of July, has the same combination of vision, intelligence, sardonic wit and concern for his fellow man that the women do.

The exchange between Talley, a war-profiteer, and his daughter Lottie (Talley & Son 79-81) establishes firmly that with her education, assertiveness and independence of mind, she is perceived by her father as having acted in ways generally reserved for males. It is further evident that men like Talley, Eldon and Harley prefer their women “frail and beautiful” (80). Lottie's bitter revolt concludes with the response which suggests that the lack of choice relative to contraception killed her mother: “Well, Momma, bless her, didn't live that long. Doctors told him she wasn't strong enough; it's not like we're Catholic. Didn't they have rubbers back at the turn of the century?” (Talley & Son 80) Even minor characters reflect changes in gender behavior: Viola Platt is disposed to acquiesce, to be submissive while her daughter Avalaine, though nasty and eventually succumbing to the power, ruthlessness and superior negotiating skills of Talley, is more than assertive—she is aggressive in her attempt to stand up to the Talleys.

Sally finally exits from the action of Talley's Folly, enters directly back into Talley & Son, and Lottie's identification with Sally is complete and total. Sally makes peace with her father and makes her escape to fulfill Lottie's thwarted hopes and dreams. Lottie conspires with her, lies to protect her and insists upon her escape which is the fulfillment of prohibited ambitions.

In the penultimate lines of Talley & Son, Timmy says that returning servicemen will find “the country's changed so much I don't imagine they'll recognize it” (115). The play's final line, Lottie's “I know” (115), seals the theme of the country's changes, in the role of women, in the nature of the family unit and the implications both will have for the country itself. The custodianship of the Talley garden which has become “pretty bad” (114), nourished by the ashes of the liberal and liberated man Matt, will fall to Jed in Fifth of July. “Women's work” will no longer be work for women, and behavior once reserved for men will no longer be the exclusive domain of the male.

What has Wilson captured in his play cycle? He has caught in mid-flight and permanently fixed very real and significant accommodations and adjustments in social continuity. What had wrought the changes in the family and the role of women? An answer is found in two allied forces—independent, liberated women who are educated and the immutable fact of World War II. That is the importance of 1944 and the background of the war to the plays. Is there other evidence of the changes and their impact? There is, perhaps, one massive symbol: in Talley & Son, the one thing that will tempt Buddy to bed with his very interested wife Olive is the thought of fathering a son. That son turns out to be Ken, who thirty-three years later will be the veteran who has lost both legs in another war, this time Vietnam. Ken, a homosexual, will father no son since he is, if we are to trust Wilson's genealogy provided in Talley & Son, married to his lover Jed. With Timmy Talley, the hope for effective male progeny, at least as recognizable to the Talleys, has died on Guam. In stark contrast to this pre-war insistence on fathering a male heir is the sex act described in Fifth of July. John Landis performs cunnilingus on his wife Gwen as he masturbates himself. What changes had World War II, the 1960's and Vietnam brought? They are depicted in the comparison of the sexual relations between John Landis and his wife Gwen, who has been liberated by Berkeley and the 1960's, and Buddy and Olive Talley. The contrast of these two sex acts is significant. They are a potent set of decades, those thirty years. Men had changed, women had changed perhaps even more, the family structure even more than that, and gender expectations had changed to an even greater degree. The end result to date of this evolution is Anna, whose last name appropriately is Mann, the central protagonist of Burn This (1987). Anna is the figure of modern, educated, liberated, talented, urban woman—the achieved person.

Burn This is a slick piece of New York (or Los Angeles, where it premiered) dramaturgy. It is sure-fire, fast, funny and hip. Like most Wilson drama, it plays well. By 1987, this man who knows theatre in its many aspects well enough to write excellent drama, knows the commercial theatre well enough to write a Broadway hit. It would be a mistake, however, to sell Burn This short merely because it has all the schtick to generate a decently long run on Broadway. Burn This is less experimental—no crossing boundary lines; no blending times, no narrator, engaged or otherwise; just straightforward theatre that the matinee lady can cope with. The traces of Pirandello, Wilder and Miller are gone, only a touch of Williams remains, and a fair dollop of Neil Simon has been added; but Ibsen's Nora is still looking for a comfortable new residence where the price is not too high.

At the play's opening, Anna is “huddled on a sofa, smoking. … She is thirty-two, very beautiful, tall and strong. A dancer”; (5). She is recovering from the loss of one of her gay roommates, Robbie, who has been killed along with his lover Dom in a boating accident. Wilson's audience may have been transported to a huge loft in lower Manhattan, but they are on familiar ground. Alan, who in Lemon Sky is in the process of discovering his sexual identity, has grown through Ken and Jed in Fifth of July, who are in some ways a fairly conventional married couple except for the fact that they're both male, to the character of Larry, Anna's remaining roommate. Larry is a gay who is quite comfortable and happy with who he is; he is very witty, funny and a winning character. Although he concedes what he calls his “protective sense of humor” (56), that just means he is human.

Early in the play, Anna describes her relationship with her mother—“all she wants is grandchildren” (11)—but Anna's expressions of self-doubt seem gratuitous, and like Larry's, are just indications of her humanity. She is, in truth, able and quite confident. She has quit dancing and is attempting to establish a reputation in choreography. Half seriously she tells her well-to-do suitor Burton that perhaps it is time for them to move to Martha's Vineyard “permanently” (19), which Burton would love. Yet Anna recalls that she did not fit in “with the women” at Robbie's funeral where she had been expected to join with his mother in “some little back bedroom, with all the aunts and cousins, with the women, right?” (20) in mourning. Anna, a contemporary woman, just does not fit in with yesterday's fashion for women. In addition, it is clear that Anna is beyond and above “prevailing opinions” (31). This educated and intelligent woman has no time for social mores or conformity to expectations relative to gender.

Robbie's brother, known as Pale, enters, and the major dramatic complication has been struck. Anna is, to use an appropriate colloquialism, a very “together” person—confident, strong and sensitive, perhaps too sensitive. At the beginning of the relationship, she does indulge Pale too much in what seems to her to be his grief. The audience suspects that he is high and on the make. After their initial one-night tryst, she is super-cool, unemotional and calm as Pale's possessions reveal a photo of his wife and children. She is unaffected by the knowledge that Pale carries a gun. She tells Larry that she went to bed with Pale after knowing him not even an hour because of the “bird-with-the-broken-wing syndrome” (47). Act One ends after Pale has left without so much as a “have a nice day” (47), and the audience is unsure which bird really had the broken wing. It is not Pale. It is certain, however, that this is a funny play and that its hero, Anna, is an exceptional woman.

Act Two reassures the audience. In the fight scene between Pale and Burton, Anna is the one who commands the situation. It is she who is most in control. She may say that Pale is “dangerous” (82) and that she's “frightened” (86) of him, but she is not intimidated by him. Anna says she's never had a personal life. There was no place for it. It wasn't important. All that is different now and she is “very vulnerable” (86), but she firmly indicates that she is not going to be prey to something she does not want. She is still in command of herself, and of the situation. Pale is impressed:

You're a real different person in the sack than you are standin' up.
I know.


She is a passionate, vibrant woman, but she is more than a horizontal being; there is also an upright, rational being to Anna. She continues:

I'm sick of the age I'm living in. I don't like feeling ripped off and scared. … I'm being pillaged and I'm being raped. And I don't like it. … If I can't have a life at least I can work.


In fact, she wants it all—work and a life too. Earlier in the play, Anna delivers a speech on “mother love” (54). It has been proposed that she choreograph a piece the overall theme of which is to be mother love. Burton proposes that they should “have kids or something” (54). Anna hears “the sound of the biological clock or something” (55). Note the vague “or something” used twice. This is more than two people feeling tentative about entering a serious commitment. Parenthood and a child are part of what is wanted; they are not all that people are about. That would no more be enough to satisfy Anna than it would Burton. Her art is important, and it will take a different shape.

As this discussion is taking place, at 2 A.M. on New Year's Eve, Anna is preparing to go to bed with Burton in what is a quite conventionally romantic scene. The audience may be secretly cheering for Anna and the near-perfect, very rich, unmarried Burton. Yet she will choose Pale. Why? It is not merely animal magnetism. That is apparent in this scene with Burton, and to suggest her choice is based on only sexual attraction to Pale would be to cheapen the play to a cliché.

The opening dialogue in Act Two between Anna and Burton about the first few pages of a new script he has written is revealing, first of all, as a sly commentary on the previous act of Wilson's, not Burton's, drama:

Oh, I like it. It's so sad. God.
Sad? I thought they were having fun.
Oh no, sure. But underneath all that, God, they're so lonely.


Late in the play, however, when Larry discovers that he and the others have been used as prototypes for characters in Burton's now completed script, he is pleased but surprised. Burton responds:

Nobody's safe around a writer. I thought you knew that.


Burton no longer has written commercial science fiction but has taken real life and turned it into art as Anna turns her relationship with Pale into art in the dance she eventually choreographs. Earlier in the play, Anna has been reflecting upon a dance she is creating, and she says she thinks it is all getting a little too personal. Burton's response is crucial:

Good, it's supposed to be—make it as personal as you can. Believe me, you can't imagine a feeling everyone hasn't had. Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write “Burn this” on it.


Lanford Wilson has, of course, so marked his play. He presents Anna as the achieved woman, all that Charlotte and Sally might have wished. What is the truth, then, upon which Wilson will write Burn This? It may be that having what Anna has leaves her wanting more. As Pale does, she wants something more than polite, civilized life “… like the ocean. That hurricane … those gigantic, citywide fires—Somethin' that can—like—amaze you” (38).

Something that can amaze you. Part of the irony is that this is why the audience in some measure has come to the theatre. As well, when the achieved person does achieve it all, he or she wants even more. When one gets what life has to offer, there is the need for something larger than life. Life does not have to be life-size. Something to amaze you: there is no other way to explain why Anna, beautiful, intelligent, mature, witty, educated, talented, strong and tall, will enter into a relationship with a vulgarian like Pale. That it is not merely animal attraction is made clear. What moves Anna is to reach for that which is beyond the pale. (Pale's name, after all, is really a mundane “Jimmy.”)

Burton too wants “something larger than life” (51) and advises Anna to “Reach! Reach for something! God! Reach for the sun! Go for it!” (52) Burton's own desires and his hopes for Anna connect Anna's aspirations to all persons, people, humans. For a woman to be accepted as a person is not the end of the journey; this acceptance, by society, and by the woman herself, is merely the beginning. Anna Mann is an achieved person who will reach for something, something larger than life yet something personal, something “amazing.” She is not a symbol for contemporary women. She is every man, … every person. The choreographed piece she achieves finally is “phenomenal. It's great” (91), according to Larry. “The dance she's done is Pale and Anna” (92). Even Pale thinks the dance is “real good” (96).

Larry leaves a note which is read in the play's conclusion that itself concludes: “This isn't opera, this is life, why should love always be tragic? Burn this” (98). Thus the audience is reminded of Burton's earlier line and recognizes that Anna has “made it personal” and has told the truth. She has turned her relationship with Pale into art, into the dance she has choreographed.

In personal terms, as critics have said of the unlikely romantic couple at the play's conclusion, it would be injudicious to see the ending as happy. It is not. This is not merely a love story. Whether Pale and Anna could possibly live happily ever after for longer than the six days that Pale's own marriage “was good” (80) is unlikely, and perhaps unimportant. What matters, what is beyond life, greater than life, better than life-size, that thing which people seek that is personal and “amazing,” is the art, the creation of Anna in the dance, the creation of Lanford Wilson in the play.

The last of Lottie's daughters is Anna Mann. In an evolutionary line from Charlotte through Sally and Shirley, it is Anna who is the achieved person. She is the dancer. That dance which April in Hot l has said nobody knows how to do, Anna has mastered. She can more than dance it, she can choreograph it, control it, shape it, mold it. At once concerned and committed, she strikes an almost perfect human balance between selfishness and selflessness. She wants it all. She has it all. Still, there is the curious irresolution of Burn This's conclusion. Anna is the achieved person indeed. Yet there is always that something beyond—beyond the pale. This is part of the artist's condition as it is part of the human situation. No artist ever writes that one true sentence. All art is a sacrifice made upon the altar of intention. No one ever gets it all. So Anna Mann is the complete person, strangely incomplete, exactly the appropriate figure for the achieved person—male or female. Everyman, this time, is a woman.

Charles Isherwood (review date 10-16 February 2003)

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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Fifth of July, by Lanford Wilson. Variety (10-16 February 2003): 44.

[In the following review, Isherwood finds Fifth of July timeless.]

Written first, Fifth of July is chronologically the last in Wilson's trilogy of major plays about Missouri's Talley family. The first act takes place on the evening of Independence Day in 1977, the second the morning after.

The timing—and title—are suggestively symbolic: They hint at the play's understated ambitions as an exploration of the collective emotional hangover that followed the ebullient hopefulness of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Through the dislocated lives of its characters, Wilson is examining the state of the American psyche in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But there is nothing polemical about the writing—Wilson simply weaves these themes naturally into the nubby fabric of the writing.

It's all the more effective for that subtlety, and for the loose nature of its dramatic construction. Wilson, who began writing plays in the 1960s, when theatrical traditions were being decimated along with many another cultural strictures, allows the play to take its own organic shape.

He imposes no confining structure on it, allowing his characters to talk their way into all sorts of odd corners (that much-discussed folk tale about a flatulent Eskimo, for example) before the play arrives, almost by accident, at an utterly natural, and gently moving, emotional climax.

Indeed, the man who appears to be the central character, Kenneth Talley Jr. (Robert Sean Leonard), the Vietnam war vet who is at a crossroads when the play begins, fades into the background for long stretches. Ken lost both legs in the war and is having second thoughts about taking up the teaching career he'd abandoned.

The grounding influence of his boyfriend Jed (Michael Gladis), the green thumb of the house, can't keep Ken's more morbid tendencies—expressed in an endless series of gently bitter sarcasms—from flowering. But the circus that surrounds Ken on Richard Hoover's agreeably cozy country-house set keeps everyone distracted from his quiet despair.

In one ring are the antics of Ken's old friends Gwen (Parker Posey), a drug-addled heiress to a copper fortune with hopes of being a pop star, and her husband, John (David Harbour), who is encouraging her aspirations—they have descended upon Lebanon, Mo., with the vague idea of building a recording studio—while trying to keep firm control of her business interests.

In another is Ken's Aunt Sally (Pamela Payton-Wright). She half-heartedly tends to her dried flowers (“How can people ever organize a hobby? It's just exhausting”) while preparing for the day's big event, the casting of her late husband's ashes into the local river.

Aunt Sally's distracted musings make for a subtle string accompaniment to the one-woman brass band that is Shirley Talley (Sarah Lord), a self-consciously precocious 14-year-old with a flair for making grandiose statements of her own worth.

Wilson's characters are drawn in bold strokes, and the actors embrace their idiosyncrasies with obvious delight. Lord, an 18-year-old new to the New York stage, is delightful in both her gawkiness and her grandiosity as the self-dramatizing Shirley, whose head is still chock-full of the dreamy illusions her seniors have had to forsake.

In a deeply felt, deceptively casual perf, Payton-Wright strikes all sorts of memorably unexpected notes as Aunt Sally, who talks blithely of UFO sightings in one scene and casually discusses the anti-Semitism that tainted her happy marriage in another.

Ebon-Moss Bachrach, as the guitar-playing Wes, whose hazy grasp of folk tales incites that long and unlikely discussion of heroism as it relates to flatulence and the preservation of caribou meat, is aptly dreamy and earnest, Gladis his natural foil as the down-to-earth Jed.

But the core of the play's understated emotional tension relates to the knot of interrelationships among Gwen, John, Ken and his sister June (Jessalyn Gilsig). They shared a past of student activism and sexual experimentation at Berkeley in the heady years of the late '60s, but the tangled affections that drew them together eventually forced them apart—with tragic consequences for Ken, who, in one of the play's most haunting moments, admits he has “never known why” he went to Vietnam soon after their menage-a-quatre imploded.

Buried resentments and long-dormant desires begin to resurface when they all share the same roof, and emotional firecrackers go off as these longtime friends find themselves forced to reckon with the painful legacies of their mutual past.

Posey has the most flamboyant role as the heiress with more money than functioning brain cells, and she dives into it with rollicking abandon, flouncing with slightly inebriated awkwardness in Ann Hould-Ward's perfectly placed costumes (where did she find the Gunny Sax dress?).

Posey's husky, deadpan voice brings an extra fillip of blithe humor to Gwen's non sequiturs and hilarious reminiscences of the '60s. (On hitch-hiking to protest marches: “I couldn't cut it. The first car that passed me up, I was destroyed. I used to fly ahead and meet them. Also, I couldn't march, 'cause I've never had a pair of shoes that were really comfortable.”)

But Gilsig and Harbour give equally perceptive, if less overtly theatrical, perfs as the more introverted June and the seemingly easygoing but subtly ruthless John. And the inward despair of Ken is captured with terrific, off-handed simplicity by the ever-impressive Leonard.

Marinated as it is in the sights and sounds of the era it depicts, Fifth of July never feels dated; disillusionment is not, after all, an experience exclusive to a particular era.

But the play also has unsettling resonance this year. The lives of its central characters have been fractured, mildly or profoundly, by the disruption of the Vietnam war. As we watch it now, the country is preparing to embark on another major international entanglement that could have unforeseen, devastating consequences on American lives. It's not just his ideals, after all, that Ken Talley lost in the war.

Ricardo Montez (review date 3 May 2003)

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SOURCE: Montez, Ricardo. Review of Burn This, by Lanford Wilson. Theatre Journal 55, no. 2 (3 May 2003): 358-59.

[In the following review of Burn This, Montez explores the theme of intimacy and its relevance in a New York City setting, post-September 11, 2001.]

Burn This ends with the play's two main characters, Anna and Pale, holding each other in an embrace full of uncertainty and grief. In the first of the Signature Theatre's productions devoted to Lanford Wilson over the 2002-2003 season, the pair, played by Catherine Keener and Edward Norton, close the play with a look towards an empty bed hovering in a loft above Anna's bedroom. This unoccupied space manages to assert an overwhelming presence throughout the production. Once belonging to Robbie—Anna's friend and Pale's brother—the bed acts as a continual reminder of absence and haunts the interactions that occur within the larger setting of the play. Pale and Anna's developing intimacies do not so much ring as a union of two people hopelessly in love as they do of a kind of grasping to fill a loss that remains wholly unprocessed. The overarching grief of the production is fueled by a stifling wash of silences and denials whose visibility is precipitated in those moments where Anna must confront familial relations from Robbie's past.

When the play opens, Anna has recently returned from a wake for Robbie. Robbie's death in a boating accident has left a palpable absence both in Anna's life and in the lower Manhattan loft where the play is set. While attending Robbie's funeral, Anna quickly realizes that his family does not openly recognize Robbie's homosexuality. Explaining the events of the wake to her other gay roommate, Larry, played by Dallas Roberts, Anna relays the anxiety and frustration of acting the part of grieving widow. Catherine Keener's performance as Anna conveys a fragile sturdiness as she struggles through her amusing, yet nightmarish, account of Robbie's wake. What for a moment might appear to be forced dialogue from a novice to the New York stage is in fact a skillful movement between distress and amusement. At times losing her words and focus, Keener drifts into a meditative space, suggesting a void that cannot be articulated through the words of the script.

Where Keener expertly evokes the complicated space of loss through her retreat from words, Edward Norton as Robbie's brother, Pale, bursts onto the scene spewing forth a barrage of words that fill the space with an energetic vitality. Through his manic rants and scattered meditations on the state of society, the character attempts to displace or redirect a seething pain. With remarkable precision, Norton delivers lines that, while offering crass and humorous breaks from the somber tone of the play, deftly convey an unspoken anxiety around the death of his brother and what confronts him in this haunted space.

During their first meeting, Anna comforts Pale, holding him on the couch as he cries and complains of bodily pain that is the manifestation of his grief. In this moment of intimacy, Pale asserts, “I'm fucking grieving here and you're giving me a hard-on.” The sexual chemistry that brings Anna and Pale together reflects an intimacy and longing conditioned by loss. Meeting in the wake of Robbie's death, the two form a connection where desire emerges as each seeks contact with another person from Robbie's life. While Anna is made painfully aware that she knows little of Robbie's existence before coming to New York, Pale struggles to obtain an idea of Robbie's life as an accomplished dancer. The encounter between these two offers both proximity and distance to the deceased as each confronts the parts of personal history that have been silenced, avoided, or made invisible in their interactions with Robbie. Intense sexual desire erupts into this difficult space. It is a longing that necessarily frustrates them even as their union fulfills the need for contact with one another.

Their desire for a connection, a force that compels these two because of, not in spite of, grief, offers a model of intimacy that speaks to the complicated ways in which many New Yorkers have come together in the face of great loss. Burn This originally premiered in 1987 at the height of AIDS activism, and Anna's experience of Robbie's funeral resonates deeply with the numerous accounts of funerals for gay men whose families did not acknowledge their homosexuality. The play, with its once-occupied bed as a marker of loss, implies an AIDS narrative, where two individuals negotiate intimacy in the wake of homosexual death. For many, all sexual intimacies and encounters are necessarily shaped by the absences precipitated by AIDS. The negotiation of bodily contact and the way individuals come to experience desire for one another have been deeply impacted by the traumatic effects of AIDS and its material and ephemeral presence in New York City. This revival of Burn This occurred during New York City's first annual remembrance of September 11, and the downtown setting of the play is in close proximity to Ground Zero. To suggest that the emotional drama of Burn This might speak to developing sexual intimacy in the wake of September 11, is not simply to replace one traumatic context for another in situating the production. Instead, the play offers a way to consider the manner in which multiple losses are inscribed in the material and emotional landscapes of New York and in turn take shape and fuel a desire for intimacy.

Following a painful encounter, when Anna insists that Pale leave her apartment and never return, Keener pulls the sheets from her bed determined to remove Pale's presence from her loft. At the end of the scene, her roommate has taken the ball of sheets from her as she decides to leave and go work in her studio. She halts, almost out the door, and quietly insists, “Don't wash the sheets”—a line which does not appear in the original text. The sheets, with Pale's smell and the trace of sex, represent a material marker for the intense relations that have occurred, registering not only Pale but also her lost friend, Robbie.


Wilson, Lanford (Vol. 14)


Wilson, Lanford (Vol. 7)